Illicit Trafficking and Libya’s Transition: Profits and Losses

February 24, 2014
Mark Shaw and Fiona Mangan

As Libya emerges from forty years of autocratic rule, the criminal economy is undermining government efforts at state consolidation. This report maps the flow of weapons, migrants, drugs, and smuggled goods through Libya and details the interactions between armed groups who control illicit markets and local communities. The authors warn that efforts to beef up border control policing will not be sufficient. Combating organized crime in Libya requires a broader approach that will engage marginalized groups in a political process. Failure to do so will affect not only Libya but the region as well.


  • Criminal activities are driving conflict in postrevolutionary Libya and undermining state consolidation.
  • The foundation of the illicit economy rests on four interconnected markets: weapons, migrants, drugs, and smuggled goods.
  • A widespread prevalence of weapons has completely changed the game in Libya and led to an industry in criminal protection.
  • The dynamics of criminal activity and the development of illicit markets have different trajectories in northern coastal cities and inland towns and border areas.
  • Many local conflicts are driven by competition over illicit resources, and the capacity to provide or guarantee protection for illicit trade has become a major lever of influence.
  • Criminal control is consolidating into fewer hands, and groups with the most resources are best placed to leverage control and political influence.
  • Ironically, it is the criminal economy rather than joint and inclusive governance that binds the regions of Libya together.
  • Organized criminal behavior, illicit trafficking and trade, and the armed groups that perpetrate them are harming the transition at a time when consolidating institutions of statehood is critical.
  • It is imperative to begin an effective response to organized crime now—with interventions in the political, economic, social, and security spheres.
  • The international community must be sensitive to Libya's regional and international vulnerabilities.
  • An appropriate response may rely less on justice and security interventions and more on carefully calibrated political management coupled with well-deployed development.
  • Such a response also must undercut the market for protection and reestablish state control.
  • Such an approach would include marginalized groups and border communities in the political process, educate the public about the costs and consequences of illegal activities, reinstate state institutions of security to replace criminal protection arrangements, and transition from cash payouts and commodity subsidies to sustainable economic opportunities.

About the Report

This report, which draws from more than two hundred interviews across Libya, seeks to improve understanding of the nature of illicit trafficking and smuggling in the country and to identify emerging patterns of organized crime and their impact on state consolidation and stability. Its goal is to help define possible policy options, including ways the international community might support stability and development for the country and the region. The study, which was supported by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau of the U.S. State Department, is part of a portfolio of rule of law work that the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is carrying out in Libya.

About the Authors

Mark Shaw is the director of communities, crime, and conflict at STATT Consulting. He previously worked at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and has held a variety of positions in government and civil society. He holds a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and has published widely on peace, security, and justice reform issues. Fiona Mangan is a senior program officer with the USIP Governance Law and Society Center. Her work focuses on prison reform, organized crime, justice, and security issues. She holds graduate degrees from Columbia University, King's College London, and University College Dublin.Explore Further

February 24, 2014
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