Over the past years, Libya has hit the front pages of international media outlets with stories of migration, terrorism, and political instability. The ouster of Gaddafi and the call for the first elections in fifty years have given hope to all those who wished for a new era. A decade later, the country is the battleground of a civil war whose outcome is still difficult to forecast. With a broken political system, Libya has fallen into a quagmire made of violence and illegality. Exploiting this instability, transnational criminal networks have transformed the country into a hub for several illegal flows, impacting directly the rest of North Africa and various countries in the Mediterranean basin. Aside from migrant smuggling, a subject that has monopolized European policymaking in the region, these emergent transnational networks have received little attention from international political stakeholders. This essay, while not trying to be exhaustive, aims at introducing the reader to the topic and at shedding light on the complexity of the Libyan patchwork.
New Smuggling Dynamics
The evolution of Libya’s smuggling dynamics has been significantly influenced by the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the consequent collapse of the security sector. Already characterized by weak institutions, the Libyan state crumbled following the NATO intervention in 2011. Originally intended as a no-fly zone operation, the intervention ultimately engaged in regime change. With the death of Gaddafi, the newly established transitional government found itself incapable of controlling the entire territory of the state. Divided along geographic, political, and communal lines, Libya became the fertile ground for the expansion of armed groups, which since then have become key political stakeholders. The fragility of the constitutional process and the enduring fragmentation eventually led to the outbreak of a second civil war in 2014. Although the warring factions have recently agreed to a ceasefire, the resolution of the political deadlock is not necessarily going to solve Libya’s longstanding socioeconomic issues. A decade of crisis has severely damaged the national economy, contributing to the flourishment of a multilayered smuggling sector.
In the Gaddafi era, smuggling involved mainly subsidized goods such as fuel and flour that could easily be sold by peripheral communities in neighboring countries. In underdeveloped areas like the Fezzan, this illicit economy was tolerated by the regime because it created employment, reducing the risks of active political opposition. Other illegal flows were normally organized by families or tribes close to Gaddafi, and as such were directly under the control of the regime. With the fall of Gaddafi, this form of “centralized” smuggling has ended, and since then, the illicit sector of the Libyan economy has grown considerably. Besides the ongoing contraband of subsidized goods, the smuggling of weapons and drugs has reached remarkable dimensions in the last decade. The reasons behind the expansion of these illicit trades are diverse. In the months after the 2011 civil war, the growth of arms smuggling was mainly dependent upon the fact that militias had seized control of national stockpiles. Weapons started to circulate uncontrolled within Libya and towards its neighbors, fueling armed insecurity in northern Mali, Niger, and Tunisia. However, these weapons often arrived far from Libya. For example, through eastern Egypt, rifles and man-portable missiles reached the Sinai and Gaza, while until 2014, light weapons were smuggled to the Syrian opposition. As the conflict raged newly in Libya, the demand for light arms and ammunition rose steadily. In the past years, it seems that this rising demand has been only partially met by the existing supply. Contrary to the arms trade, the growth of narcotics smuggling is more related to the regional dimensions of the phenomenon. Until the fall of the regime, Libya represented a transit point for small flows of drugs, mainly cannabis, in route to Europe and Egypt. Since 2011, drug trafficking dynamics have evolved radically, seeing the expansion of certain flows, the creation of different routes, and the involvement of new actors. In the first years after the uprising, Libya became a transit point for a new flow of cocaine which reached the coast from the country's southwest. Transported in large quantities by heavily guarded convoys or in small quantities by migrants on their way to Libya, this flow reached large dimensions until the insecurity in Mali and Niger made the route too dangerous for smuggling. Besides cannabis and cocaine, Libya has experienced a small revival of heroin and a significant expansion of smuggled pharmaceutical medicines. In the past few years, prescription painkillers such as Tramadol and Clonazepam have flooded the Libyan drug market and are now purchased regularly by a large segment of society, from middle-class youth in coastal towns to militiamen fighting on the front. Often overlapping with other illegal flows, drug trafficking still constitutes an essential part of Libya's illicit economy.
Compared to the Gaddafi era, smuggling in post-revolutionary Libya has been characterized by fierce competition over routes. The injection of arms in the Libyan political arena has pushed traffickers to arm themselves, making this activity riskier and driving some of the old actors out of business. Moreover, the uncontrolled circulation of weapons has caused the expansion of a particular market for private security, which has become pivotal for the survival of independent smugglers in the business. These factors, along with the political fragmentation, have provided armed groups with the perfect environment for engaging in the smuggling business. For these militias, smuggling represents a way to make a profit out of the military control of stretches of territory, maintaining the local popularity which is often at the base of their power. Militias gain an income by directly controlling certain flows, or by imposing taxes on the commodities passing through their territories. Their involvement in smuggling has facilitated the development of more complex transnational networks but has also contributed to an increase in street violence. Already in 2013, the UN Panel of Experts on Libya underlined that control over trafficking routes had become necessary for the survival of armed groups. Since then, the control over smuggling flows has produced localized conflicts all over the country, often exacerbating pre-existing political rivalries. State attempts to clamp down the phenomenon have produced a particular dynamic for which certain armed groups previously involved in illegal activities have started to collaborate in anti-smuggling operations to gain political legitimacy. This volatility is likely to remain a challenge for any future Libyan government and the international community.
The Two-Way Route to Europe
In July 2018, an inspection of the Italian corvette “Caprera” by the port authorities in Brindisi revealed the presence of some 700,000 cigarettes and several boxes of Cialis on board, purchased by sailors in Libya and intended to be sold illegally in Italy. Stationed in Tripoli for several months, the crew of this warship was part of the force deployed by the Italian government in western Libya to train the GNA's coastguard and prevent the sailing of migrants to Europe. Envisioning the potential profit of this business, the sailors exploited their local contacts to purchase the cigarettes and the medicines, allegedly using the contingency fund of their unit to pay the traders and their intermediary. As striking as this episode might be, the fact that a group of Italian sailors made an attempt at smuggling cigarettes is just evidence of the wider dynamics of smuggling in Libya. The collapse of the security sector has allowed international actors to gain a foothold in the country and exploit its instability. For the European organized crime, post-Gaddafi Libya has constituted a large market for the arms trade as well as a warehouse for legal and illegal goods to import to Europe. The extent of the connection between European criminal organizations and the militias is difficult to assess, but it is clear that their agency has contributed to shaping the Libyan trafficking sector.
One of the most evident examples of the capabilities of these transnational networks is the fuel smuggling ring that connected the Zawiya oil refinery to European markets via Malta and southern Italy. Based on an alliance between the notorious smuggler Fahmi Bin Khalifa and the chief of the Coast Guard of Zawiya, the network moved fuel from the Zawiya refinery to the coastal town of Zuwara. There, the fuel was moved via land to Tunisia and via sea to Maltese waters, where it was unloaded on a fleet of small ships and brought onshore. From Malta, smuggled fuel reached Italy, Spain, and France. The arrest of Bin Khalifa and other members of the ring in 2017 caused an involution of the phenomenon, which since has changed both in the methods and the actors involved. However, its complexity and extensiveness have revealed the capabilities of the transnational smuggling networks based in Libya. Besides fuel, weapons and narcotics are the products most commonly moved to and from Europe. Cocaine and cannabis reach southern Europe sailing from Libyan ports. On the other hand, Italian, Greek, and Maltese harbors often serve as a waypoint for the trafficking of prescription medicines from India reaching Libya. In similar ways, southern Europe has been particularly present in Libya's weapons trafficking dynamics. For example, in the summer of 2017, a few months before HAF's conquest of Benghazi, the Shura Council controlling the city used a wide range of connections to purchase weapons. One of the middlemen that supplied mines and rocket launchers to the group was an Italian yacht businessman, who after the bankruptcy of his company, fled to Libya and used the remains of his fleet to smuggle weapons to Benghazi. A more sophisticated smuggling ring was established by Abdurraouf Eshati, a Libyan arrested in the UK in November 2014. Being in contact with middlemen in Zintani, Eshati served as broker in a complex network that included Egyptians and Italians and whose main agent was a seventy-year-old Italian arms dealer already implicated in the trafficking of weapons to the Balkans in the 1990s. In these and many other cases, Libya has provided an expanding weapons market to a transnational class of dealers and middlemen based in southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Soviet-manufactured rifles, modified blank guns, and homemade ammunition contribute to the constant supply of weapons purchased by militias and private citizens in Libya.
The evolution of smuggling in Libya since 2011 is a story deeply connected with the failure of the post-Gaddafi reconstruction. The attempt at incorporating militias into the state has clashed with the continuity of their chains of command. Largely independent, these militias have assumed a particular position vis-à-vis state structures, at the same time within and outside them. With a security sector largely based on this ambiguity, it is not surprising that the line dividing smugglers from the anti-smuggling apparatus is often blurred. Furthermore, in many areas the trafficking sector has emerged as a substitute for the formal economy, representing the only relief for a battered civilian population. In the words of a Libyan professor interviewed by the International Crisis Group, “smuggling here is a job; it is not a crime." The new interim government will have to address the issue concurrently with the political reunification of the country. However, the smuggling sector, along with its social and economic consequences, is likely to continue daunting Libya in the years to come.
 Mark Shaw and Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking and Libya's Transition: Profits and Losses” United States Institute of Peace, Peacework report no. 96 (February 2014), p. 7-8.
 Report by the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya (2013), p. 33-35, (2014), p. 41-43, and (2015), p. 47-48.
 Mark Micallef, Raouf Farrah, Alexander Bish and Victor Tanner, “After the Storm: Organized crime across the Sahel-Sahara following upheaval in Libya and Mali” Global Initiative Against Organized Crime (2019), p. 53-55.
 For an overview on the evolution of drug trafficking in Libya after 2011: Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Drug Trafficking in Libya”, United States Institute of Peace, Peacework report no. 161 (May 2020).
 Mark Micallef, “Shifting sands: Libya's changing drug trafficking dynamics on the coastal and desert borders”, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2019), p. 23-25.
 Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Drug Trafficking”, p. 12-13 and 18-23.
 Mark Shaw and Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Trafficking”, p. 17-19.
 Report by the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya (2013), p. 11.
 See for example the case of the Anas al-Dabbashi Brigade in Sabratha: Tim Eaton, “Libya's War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness”, Chatham House (April 2018), p. 12-13.
 Patrick Kingsley and Sara Creta. “The Ship That Stopped 7,000 Migrants, and Smuggled 700,000 Cigarettes”, The New York Times (Sep. 28, 2020). Retrievable at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/28/world/europe/italy-warship-migrants-libya-cigarettes-smuggling.html
 Report by the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya (2018), p. 38-45.
 Mark Micallef, “Shifting sands” p. 13-17; Fiona Mangan, “Illicit Drug Trafficking”, p. 8-13.
 Italian, Greek, and Maltese coast guards regularly seize cargoes of painkillers en route to Libia. See for example: “Sequestrato carico di 'droga del combattente'” Corriere della Sera (November 4, 2017). Retrievable at: https://www.corriere.it/cronache/17_novembre_03/gioia-tauro-sequestrato-carico-droga-combattente-traffico-gestito-isis-bc235e58-c06a-11e7-8b75-0df914d10fe2.shtml
 “Libia. Terrorismo e traffico d'armi, Ros arresta imprenditore italiano” Rai News 24 (December 1, 2019). Retrievable at: https://www.rainews.it/dl/rainews/articoli/libia-terrorismo-e-traffico-armi-ros-arresta-imprenditore-bolognese-7638feaf-a897-412a-931b-458a56c8362a.html?refresh_ce
 Report by the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya (2016), p. 30-31. See also: “Libia, estradato in Italia Franco Giorgi, intermediario accusato di traffico d'armi.” Il Fatto Quotidiano (April 1, 2019). Retrievable at: https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2019/04/01/libia-bonafede-tripoli-rimanda-in-italia-il-trafficante-darmi-franco-giorgi/5078019/
 International Crisis Group, “How Libya's Fezzan Became Europe's New Border” (July 31, 2017), p. 5.