National Security

State Department Urges U.S. Citizens to Stay Away from Libya

New travel warning shines light on deteriorating region, persisting terror threats

ISIS Libya
A man loyal to the Libyan armed forces sits in a tank during clashes with Islamic State group militants west of Benghazi, Libya / AP

The State Department is warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Libya and recommending that any Americans currently in the country depart immediately as chaos and terror threats worsen in the region.

"The security situation in Libya remains unpredictable and unstable, and extremist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests. If in Libya, make contingency emergency plans and maintain security awareness at all times," the State Department wrote in a travel warning issued Thursday, which supersedes a previous warning issued last September.

The agency cited the high crime rate and the threat of kidnapping in the country and said that extremist groups have solicited attacks against Americans and U.S. interests in Libya.

"Hotels frequented by westerners have been attacked by armed groups and terrorists. Violent extremist activity in Libya remains high. Foreigners may be targeted by violent extremist groups seeking to injure, kidnap or kill anyone associated with the United States," the department wrote.

The safety in Libya has continued to deteriorate following the 2011 toppling of leader Muammar Gaddafi, which left a vacuum filled by jihadist groups. President Obama has characterized his failure to plan for the day following Gaddafi’s ouster as the worst mistake of his presidency.

The government shuttered the U.S. Embassy in Libya and evacuated staff in July 2014 amid violent and persisting conflicts between armed militia groups in the country. The United States also prohibits American commercial planes from flying within or in the vicinity of Libya due to the conflict there, and most international airports in the country are closed.

The State Department warned Thursday that terrorists in Libya had obtained anti-aircraft weapons to target civilian airliners.

"Military-grade weapons remain in the hands of private individuals, U.S. and UN-designated terrorists, and other armed groups in Libya. These include antiaircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation," the travel warning states.

Militia groups in Libya have also "supplanted" police and began operating checkpoints between cities, the department noted, therefore compromising internal security.

"Militia groups sometimes detain travelers for arbitrary or unclear reasons, without access to a lawyer or legal process, and without allowing detainees to inform others of their status. You should carry proof of citizenship and valid immigration status at all times, though these documents do not guarantee fair treatment," the warning reads.

"Militias in control of Libya’s airports have arbitrarily detained and held U.S. citizen travelers for weeks at a time before being released," the State Department wrote, noting that the U.S. government has "extremely limited capacity" to help Americans held by militias in Libya.

Rogue groups have also gained control of several border crossings. The region surrounding the Libyan border has been the site of recent terrorist attacks and kidnappings of Westerners. In March, Islamic militants attacked army and police forces in Tunisia near the Libyan border, killing at least 50 people, including civilians. The agency has issued alerts and warnings for neighboring countries, including Tunisia.

The State Department also advised U.S. mariners to take "extreme caution" when moving through or near Libyan territorial waters, given that seaports and roads can abruptly close and vessels transiting are required approval by the Libyan National Army. The Coast Guard issued in April 2014 a clear set of precautions for U.S. vessels to take when traveling near Libyan ports after a team of Navy SEALs took control of a Libyan oil tanker, Morning Glory, that had been seized by armed anti-government rebels.

Concerns over the security situation in Libya have grown particularly strong as ISIS has built support in the country. The State Department highlighted the terror group’s gains in Libya in a recent terrorism report, which assessed ISIS as the largest global threat. The terror group is estimated to have recruited as many as 5,000 terrorist fighters based in Libya in recent months.

The conflict in Libya has also become a flash point in the presidential race, as presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton helped architect Obama’s policy toward Libya as secretary of state. Critics had faulted Clinton for not providing adequate security to the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, before the 2012 terror attack that killed four people there, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.