Drugs and Smugglers: Libya has become a haven for transnational crime


Post-Qaddafi Libya lies in ruins. Lawlessness, terrorism and militia rule have ripped the country apart into competing enclaves and cities. In the anarchy of civil war, the nefarious shadow of transnational organised crime has grown larger, and with it trafficking in drugs and innocent men, women and children.

“My generation, the next generation is gone,” Ahmed Al-Hani, a former government official from Tripoli, said sadly. “Society as a whole has disintegrated. Without a gun you’re nothing.” Since the 2011 revolution and NATO’s military campaign, which ended Muammar Qaddafi’s 41 years in power, the country has been embroiled in two civil wars. In February 2019, according to a report by the U.N Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 823,000 people in Libya, including 248,000 children were in need of humanitarian assistance.

With Libya in the grip of calamity, transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) and local militias have filled the vacuum. Conventionally, long borders and corruption – present under Qaddafi – have made Libya ideal for smuggling. Cannabis in the European Union coming from across the Mediterranean Sea has traditionally departed from Libya. Cocaine coming through West Africa is often distributed through Libya to Europe through southern Italy and TCOs have been entrenching themselves along these routes to transport cocaine, amphetamine, cannabis, small arms and migrants through to North Africa.

TCOs are taking full advantage of pre-existing cannabis and arm smuggling routes which existed before the conflict. With instability, Libya’s borders with Chad and Niger, now undermanned by militias, have become an increasing concern for Libyan authorities. As with other countries destabilised by war in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq and Syria, Libya is now a market for drugs and a hub for drug transportation to Europe. Similarly, as with other countries impacted by the ‘War on Drugs’ such as the United States, Mexico, and Colombia, violence has not halted or disrupted the drug trade. The seizure of 25 tonnes of cannabis in February, 2013 and 24 million tablets of Tramadol (a synthetic opioid which has become a blight on the streets of Libya and used by Islamic State fighters to overcome combat stress) in March, 2017 were two examples of huge drug imports and exports to and from Libya being intercepted by Italian authorities.

The social impact of drugs has been profound. Police from Tripoli’s government claim that 80 per cent of the country’s crime is now drug related. Vulnerable groups, including those traumatised by the conflict, live in an environment where drugs are now cheaper then food. According to The New Humanitarian, the collapse of education programmes has increased drug use, and in a study conducted by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, 87 percent of Tripoli’s injecting drug users have HIV. With drug trafficking increasing, TCOs and militias have also been coordinating to smuggle migrants across the Mediterranean. Thousands have drowned on route, many more are being exploited by smugglers on route and hundreds are falling into the embrace of the Italian TCOs whose trafficking rings are forcing women into sexual slavery. Refugees, alongside drug trafficking, have become an industry for TCOs.

The illicit businesses of arms, drugs and human trafficking have converged in Libya. The United Kingdom must do more to end the vicious cycle of conflict in Libya empowering drug trafficking. Ending violence in Libya and providing support for non-governmental organisations on the ground would be an effective first step to shoring up the country’s crumbling healthcare system which is driving the public health crisis and worsening the situation for thousands suffering from addiction and helping those being exploited by drug traffickers and smugglers.