14 Jul 2023

Cross-border smuggling / Countering Libya’s illicit economies through targeted sanctions

Targeted sanctions have impacted and shaped Libya’s illicit economies but not curtailed them. To improve effect, a rethink is needed.

Twelve years on from Libya’s revolution, the country remains fragile. The government has limited reach, with de facto power exercised by competing armed groups.

Libya’s instability and lack of state control have helped drive a massive rise in the country’s illicit economies. Fuel smuggling is endemic, with networks illegally moving large volumes within Libya and to neighbouring countries. Drug networks have converged on the country, using it as a depot for the storage, sale and regional trafficking of cocaine, hashish and other narcotics. Most visibly, the country is a key departure zone for irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

These illicit markets have exacerbated Libya’s fragility. Armed groups protect and tax smugglers as they transit areas under their influence. This increases the groups’ power and fuels violent competition over territory. Severe human rights violations are also linked to illicit markets, particularly human smuggling.

Facing these peace, security and human rights threats, international actors – mainly the United Nations (UN), European Union and United States – have turned to targeted financial and visa sanctions against those involved in or profiting from the illicit economy. These sanctions generally involve those linked to human smuggling, though some sanctions have targeted contraband fuel or drug traffickers. The focus is generally on high-profile individuals within networks, often middlemen or mid-level leaders, rather than networks more comprehensively. Only one group, Zawiya’s Awlad Buhmeira network, has had multiple members sanctioned.

Sanctions were first levied on criminal actors in 2018. Since then, questions have arisen about the effectiveness of such tools. Critics point out that most sanctioned Libyan actors live openly, remain involved in crime, and hold influence. One Libyan told ENACT that those sanctioned were ‘still making money and still traveling to Tunisia and Turkey.’ Libya’s illicit markets also continue to thrive. Migrant departures from Libya to Europe are reportedly at their highest point since 2017. On its face, the durability of crime in Libya seems to point to a failure of sanctions, as well as other western interventions.

Sanctions offer benefits as an important, if imperfect, tool for effecting change

While these are valid criticisms, their focus misses the ways in which sanctions have helped shape the nature of illicit markets in Libya.

First, they have led to a shift in ways that sanctioned and non-sanctioned individuals engage in illicit economic activity. Libyan interviewees and foreign experts note examples of illicit actors who worry about the risks that sanctions bring. As a result, many criminals have lowered their profiles and adapted their activities, such as building diffuse networks or operating through partners.

Interviewees say others have sought to secure offshore assets under relatives’ names. Still others have curtailed involvement in illicit activities targeted by sanctions. Interviewees suggest that, in one case, a high-profile individual linked to fuel smuggling reportedly lobbied his network to exit the trade to limit sanctioning risks.

Second, they have shaped ways that armed groups assess the risks of involvement with illicit economies. The most dramatic example here is human smuggling. Sanctions, alongside additional tools of pressure by the international community – including aid and diplomatic engagement – have resulted in a substantial shift in ways that armed groups involve themselves in the activity. To limit risk, many have wound down their operations or lowered their profiles.

Other groups have become involved in countering migration by arresting migrants or intercepting their vessels, viewing such activities as an avenue to improve their public image and enhance their legitimacy. Such approaches, however, do not generally entail a cessation in human smuggling, but instead a more nuanced and deliberate approach to it.

Sanctions should be used only as part of a broader, defined strategy in Libya to address illicit economies

Finally, sanctions have had a noticeable effect on shaping the ecosystem in which illicit economic actors operate. Multiple interviewees flag the negative reputational impact in Libya of being sanctioned, particularly around human smuggling and trafficking.

Negative reputational impacts have influenced how – and how visibly – other actors engage with sanctioned persons. An example is Abdelrahman Milad ‘al-Bidja’, a naval officer sanctioned for his links to human smuggling. He was reportedly asked by military commanders not to publicise his presence at the frontlines during the 2019-20 War for Tripoli, largely because of his reputation as a sanctioned individual.

These impacts have arguably shaped the context of illicit markets in Libya and influenced how criminals assess decisions in front of them, altering their methods of operations, employment of abuse and violence, and perceptions of impunity.

Nonetheless, approaches to sanctioning can be improved. This is important given the likelihood that the international community will keep looking to sanctions as a tool for addressing the negative impacts of Libya’s illicit markets.

The first area for improvement involves the need to go beyond sanctions on individual criminals in a network, and rather comprehensively target multiple actors in a network or the ecosystem supporting it. As one former UN official told ENACT, ‘If one person suffers some consequences while everyone else keeps making millions, it isn’t enough of a deterrent.’

Critics point out that most sanctioned Libyan actors live openly, are involved in crime, and hold influence

Second, sanctions should be strategically designed to build on existing trends and limit fallout. This partly involves a close assessment of ongoing debates and discussions within Libya around illicit economies, with designations designed to dovetail with the dynamics.

So too, sanctioning decisions should be influenced by a conflict sensitivity assessment. Unintended consequences may occur when targeting groups that also play a role in both governance and factional politics. Targeting some actors while ignoring their rivals, for example, can be seen as the international community picking sides, which risks destabilising often delicate local situations and undermining the overall credibility of international efforts.

Third, there needs to be a follow-up to designations. Sanctions should not be a fire-and-forget tool, but one that continues to be fine-tuned around different individuals and networks. As part of this, regular assessments of enforcement weaknesses and points of influence should be conducted.

Finally, sanctions should be used only as part of a broader, defined strategy in Libya to address illicit economies. By using other tools, it is possible to build up Libya’s capacity to address the challenge even as sanctions press down, achieving more durable, lasting effects. These tools could include prosecutorial approaches, local law enforcement capacity building, and development aid to communities at risk of criminal infiltration.

Dr Matt Herbert, Senior Expert, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime


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