FPI Bulletin: Libya’s ISIS Stronghold

March 2, 2016

On February 19, U.S. warplanes attacked an Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) training camp in Libya where fighters were “planning external attacks on U.S. and other Western interests in the region,” a Pentagon spokesman reported. The airstrike followed a year in which the Islamic State established control of a 150 mile-wide enclave on the Libyan coast while assembling a force of as many as 6,500 fighters—the group’s largest presence outside of its heartland in Iraq and Syria. The terror group’s gains indicate that the United States is making little progress toward President Obama’s 2014 pledge “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

The Growing Threat

The ISIS threat to North Africa became apparent in early 2015, when gunmen trained at a camp in western Libya carried out two major attacks in neighboring Tunisia. During the remainder of the year, the Islamic State consolidated control of its enclave around Surt (or Sirte), which lies at the center of the Libyan coastline.  In November 2015, The New York Times described Surt as “an actively managed colony of the central Islamic State, crowded with foreign fighters from around the region.” That same month, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s senior counterterrorism analyst warned that “Libya is the [ISIS] province or affiliate we’re most worried about.”

In addition to controlling a 150 mile stretch of Libya’s central coast, the Islamic State is now conducting “a sophisticated, multi-front campaign against Libya’s oil facilities,” notes Harleen Gambhir of the Institute for the Study of War. The group also has an operational presence in every one of Libya’s major cities. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, recently warned that the Libyan affiliate—which calls itself Wilayat Tarabulus—is particularly worrisome because it is a new formation directly controlled by ISIS leadership, not a pre-existing terror group that had sworn fealty to ISIS, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Libya’s Political Paralysis

The Islamic State has thrived in Libya’s post-Qaddafi disorder, as rival networks of political and military factions work to prop up two separate legislatures. Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment and Wolfram Lacher of SWP write that the “Dawn” coalition “comprises Islamist fighters and militias from the western part of the country” and has ties to the General National Congress based in Tripoli.  The opposing “Dignity” coalition “is drawn from eastern tribes, federalists, some western militias, and Qaddafi-era officers recruited into a self-styled ‘Libyan National Army’ led by General Khalifa Hifter,” who is fiercely anti-Islamist. The Dignity bloc has ties to a competing legislative body, the internationally recognized Council of Deputies in the eastern city of Tobruk.

In December 2015, after a year and a half of political paralysis, Libya’s rival legislatures signed an agreement with the United Nations to form a national unity government.  Establishing this “Government of National Accord” (GNA), however, has proven difficult. Wehrey writes that a key stumbling block is “control over Libya’s military and specifically the continued role of Hifter as commander-in-chief of the Libyan National Army, which Dawn factions fiercely oppose.”  Another fear is that a unity government formed in response to U.S. and European pressure would lack credibility with the Libyan people.

The Hesitant White House Response

Last month, The New York Times reported that the President was “being pressed by some of his national security aides, including his top military advisers, to approve the use of American forces in Libya to open another front against the Islamic State.” These measures would have included “airstrikes, commando raids or advising vetted Libyan militias on the ground, as Special Operations forces are doing now in eastern Syria. Covert C.I.A. paramilitary missions [were] also being considered.”

Yet two weeks later, The Daily Beast reported that the President had ruled out major military operations. As one Pentagon official said, “There is little to no appetite for that in this administration.” While the President personally approved the February 19 airstrike on the ISIS training camp, it appears to be as far as he is willing to go at this time. At the Pentagon, a spokesman parried reporters’ questions about the potential for additional strikes, saying, “we're going to be prepared to strike ISIL where we see those opportunities.”

The President’s unwillingness to take concerted action against Libya’s ISIS affiliate serves as a reminder that his policy toward the Islamic State remains one of half-measures.  The editors of the Wall Street Journal observe that “Mr. Obama’s hesitation is the same lead-from-behind approach that led to Libya’s descent into chaos.” While supportive of the effort to reconcile Libya’s rival legislatures, the Journal’s editors stress that “a unity government by itself won’t be able to eliminate Islamic State in Libya. … Local forces aren’t going to retake and hold territory without a sustained U.S. commitment.”

Though Libyans clearly need foreign help to defend their country from the Islamic State, the timing of that help is a delicate question. The U.N. envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has warned that a unity government would be extremely weak at the outset, so pushing to authorize an intervention right away could undermine it. Nonetheless, Kobler said, “Airstrikes are good,” even though they cannot be effective in the absence of competent Libyan ground forces.

On the other hand, the dangers of passivity are already apparent: further attacks akin to those suffered in Tunisia, Paris and San Bernardino last year. In the words of Ben Fishman, who served as the Director for Libya on Obama’s National Security Council, even a limited U.S.-led mission in the absence of a unity government, “is far superior to letting the Islamic State continue to expand with impunity.”

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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