Project: International Security Department

James Chandler, Former Army Visiting Fellow, Chatham House

That the Bassingbourn programme to train a new Libyan army produced unfavourable results does not mean the defence engagement concept is inherently flawed.

Libyan soldiers take part in a parade marking the 75th anniversary of the army's establishment at Martyr's Square in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on 13 August 2015. Photo: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.Libyan soldiers take part in a parade marking the 75th anniversary of the army's establishment at Martyr's Square in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on 13 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.


  • In 2011 the United Kingdom was instrumental in supporting the popular uprising in Libya that led to the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. Thereafter, the British government was keen to assist with post-conflict stabilization to support Libya’s democratic transition.
  • Central to this stabilization effort was an ambitious plan, under the auspices of its new International Defence Engagement Strategy, to train a new Libyan army at Bassingbourn Barracks in Cambridgeshire. The training programme, implemented in June 2014, was beset with challenges almost from the outset, and was abruptly terminated less than five months later after a number of trainees who had absconded from the barracks were arrested and charged in connection with serious sexual assaults in Cambridge city centre.
  • Libya had meanwhile begun a descent into violent chaos, and the overall assistance package for the country fell victim to the pace of political developments that it had little prospect of influencing. In the absence of effective political oversight from Libya, the Bassingbourn programme became an isolated endeavour and its recruits came to realize that they were a forgotten force with no future in their home country.
  • The continuing instability in Libya and the failure at Bassingbourn have come to symbolize the shortcomings of the United Kingdom’s defence engagement strategy. Although entirely plausible in theory, the strategy has proved problematic in practice.
  • Bassingbourn also acted as a ‘wake-up call’ for the British Army. Despite a long history of training indigenous forces and a new operating model that heralds defence engagement as a major output, the Army was unprepared for this programme and lacked the necessary understanding to deliver its new role.
  • This paper makes the case that the practical application of the government’s defence engagement strategy lacks commitment and coherence; and that the British Army, the involvement of which is integral to the strategy, is not currently set for success in this regard.
  • The Bassingbourn case study produces some important lessons. In Whitehall, there must be coordinated and cross-government commitment before engagement begins; on implementation, stabilizing local politics must be the primary focus. For the British Army, understanding socio-cultural dynamics is crucial; engagement itself must be tailored to both the training audience and the needs of the specific security environment.