Yesterday morning in Libya, it was announced that militias from Misrata were moving into Sirte to combat the Islamic State (I.S.). The militias preparing to fight I.S. are drawn from Libya Dawn, the Islamist coalition that ousted the internationally-recognised government in August 2014.
The competing authorities in Libya
The legally-elected government is now ensconced in Tobruk in the far east of Libya. The Libya Dawn so-called Government of National Salvation, which controls Libya’s three main cities—Tripoli, Benghazi, and Misrata—is headed by Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, while the Tobruk-based government has been headed by Abdullah al-Thani since March 2014 when Ali Zeidan resigned amid recriminations over the instability and alleged corruption.
The actual power of the Tobruk-based government is provided by Khalifa Haftar. Haftar had been one of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Generals in the so-called Toyota War with Chad (December 1986-September 1987). Haftar’s brigade was taken prisoner of war by the Chadians. According to a profile of Haftar:
When Qaddafi publicly disavowed the P.O.W.s, Haftar was enraged, and called for his men to join him in a coup. By 1988, he had aligned himself with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a Chad-based opposition group supported by the C.I.A. Soon afterward, he was released from prison. … As military commander of the Salvation Front, he plotted an invasion of Libya—but Qaddafi outflanked him, backing a disruptive coup in Chad. The C.I.A. had to airlift Haftar and three hundred and fifty of his men to Zaire and, eventually, to the United States. Haftar was given citizenship, and remained in the U.S. for the next twenty years.
Haftar certainly seems to have been a CIA asset for a time—which has led to much fevered speculation that he is still a CIA agent. Haftar’s intense hatred of Qaddafi led him back to Libya in 2011 to partake in the revolt.
Haftar has now set himself up as the bastion of order and anti-Islamism in post-Qaddafi Libya. Haftar’s forces are under the banner of the Libyan National Army and since late 2014 Haftar has been officially under the authority of the legal government in Tobruk.
On May 16, 2014, Haftar launched Operation DIGNITY, a land and air operation against the Islamist militias which quickly escalated not just in the east of the country but in Tripoli, where Haftar loyalists stormed the Parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), on May 18, and tried to evict the Libya Dawn MPs whom Haftar said (not without justification) had no legitimacy. In November 2014, the Libya Dawn government declared war on both Thani and Haftar.
There are more than echoes of Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fattah as-Sisi, about Gen. Haftar. For example, while Haftar is looking to eradicate the Salafi jihadists, he also wants rid of the Muslim Brotherhood—and has a particular focus on the Brethren. Haftar has also renounced ambitions for power while stirring-up a cult of personality, just as Sisi did. “I do not seek power,” Haftar was quoted saying in May 2014. “However … if the masses ask for me, I will not hesitate in responding to their request.” For those acquainted with the hysterical populism—including much kitsch and talk of the “desire of the masses“—that has accompanied the nasty chauvinism of the Sisi regime, this is starting to look familiar.
Haftar’s forces have received assistance, including airstrikes, from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Haftar has also been backed by Saudi Arabia. Libya Dawn has been supported financially by Qatar, and also reportedly by Turkey, which also supports the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Adala Wal-Bina (the Justice and Construction/Development Party). In late June, Haftar announced, “All citizens of Turkey and Qatar should leave Libya within 48 hours“. Haftar had accused Qatar the week before of supporting “terrorism” in Libya and now added Turkey to the accusation. Turkey did not help by becoming the first State to send an official envoy to meet with the Libya Dawn government in October.
Tracking all the armed units inside Libya is near-impossible, but some large formations obtrude.
There are the militias that were (at least nominally) folded into the State:
- Libyan National Army (LNA): The banner name for the patchwork of militias in Benghazi, composed of remnants of the old army and other anti-Islamist forces, including the Tebu ethnic group, and Tripoli, where the LNA is composed mostly of Zintanis, that Haftar put together during Operation DIGNITY. The unity of this force is open to doubt and there is no real way to estimate its numbers, but it is the sole force with air power in Libya.
- Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR): Led by Adel al-Tarhouni, with at most 350 men, LROR was set up to defend the capital, but it was stripped of its power after its members were believably accused of kidnapping then-PM Zeidan in October 2013. LROR was key in ousting the legitimate government. A branch of LROR was set up in Benghazi but it does not seem to have had much effect.
- National Security Directorate (NSD): This is Libya’s conventional police force with between 7,000 and 9,500 men. With weapons shortages, lack of central authority in the Interior Ministry, and increasingly well-armed and -organised Salafi jihadists intruding into Libya, the NSD’s very existence is mostly theoretical at this point.
- Al-Saiqa: An elite force of 5,000 paramilitaries and commandos. Initially set up by Qaddafi, it is something like a Special Operations/counterterrorism unit. Sternly anti-Islamist and nationalist, al-Saiqa was instrumental in crushing the insurgency by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), al-Qaeda’s Libyan branch, in the 1990s, and since Qaddafi’s ouster has clashed not only with Qaedaist elements but the NSD and Libya Shield.
- Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG): Set up in 2012 to protect the refineries on which Libya relies, which had mostly survived the war, this is a sprawling militia of up to 20,000 men, with only 2,000 having been trained by the military. In July 2013, Tripoli fired PFG leader Ibrahim Jadhran after he closed off two oil export terminals, disrupting international oil markets. Some reports say Jadhran did this because he accused the government of corruption; other reports say he wanted autonomy. The likelihood is that the former is a pretext for the latter. In either event, Jadhran’s replacement, Rasheed Mohammed Saleh Alsabri, never actually exerted any control. Jadhran has railed against a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to take over the government, but his objections to the Ikhwans might well come “from the Right,” as it were—that is, he is closer to the Salafists.
- Libya Shield Force (LSF): In total, this loose consortium has between 6,000 and 12,000 men, concentrated in Misrata but with important divisions in Benghazi and Khums and smaller units in Zliten, Bani Walid, Zawiya, Gharyan, Tarhuna, and Sabrata. LSF is divided into three main militias: Libya Shield 1 which operates in Benghazi and is aligned with the al-Qaeda-led council in that city (see below); Western Shield which operates south of Tripoli and is connected to Ibrahim Tantoush (a.k.a. Abd al-Muhsin al-Libi) who was indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombing of the U.S.’s East Africa Embassies, has funded al-Qaeda, and was a member of the LIFG; and Central Shield which, with LROR, helped defeat the last stand of the government forces at Tripoli Airport last August.
- Other State-affiliated militias include the Anti-Crime Unit (ACU) which was an investigative body paired with the Special Deterrence Force (SDF) within the Interior Ministry to combat things like drug trafficking. These two units however also suppressed things like alcohol production and had sometimes seized weapons. Both were known be close to the Islamists. The Joint Security Operations Room was intended mostly as a coordinating mechanism within the security forces. The number of armed men these groups had is unclear and where they are now is even less clear.
There are the militias that largely maintained autonomy but used to be officially under the Defence Ministry:
- Az-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council (ZMC): Located in the Zintan Mountains south-west of Tripoli, ZMC has about 4,000 men under the leadership of Osama al-Juwaili, Minister of Defence between 2011 and 2012. ZMC is possibly best known for being the militia to hold Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the fallen dictator’s son. It was one of the groups that fought to defend the legitimate government last August.
- Al-Qaqa Brigade: Also based in Zintan, the brigade is of a more Islamist hue. It is said to have 18,000 fighters. It withdrew from Tripoli under one of the programs to get the militias under control, but is still believed to maintain a presence in the capital. The brigade has been associated with Mahmoud Jibril, the Prime Minister of the revolutionary council during the revolt that brought down Qaddafi, but is led by Othman Mlekta.
- Liwa as-Suwaiq: Originally from Zintan, the group was among those who led the September 2011 assault on Tripoli that pulled down the regime. Comprised of 2,000 men and led by Isam al-Traboulsi, the group changed its name to al-Sawaiq Brigade for Protection, and was integrated into the State security architecture, not just for the new government but buildings such as the French Embassy in Tripoli.
- Misrata Brigades a.k.a. Misratan Union of Revolutionaries (MUR): A coalition of up to 200 militias, MUR contains up to 40,000 men. MUR is accused, with Libya Shield, of war crimes during the suppression of a pro-Qaddafi revolt by the Warfalla tribe in the old Qaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid in September/October 2012.
- February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade: Led by Fawzi Bukatef, the group has 1,500 to 3,500 members. Once one of the most powerful militias in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, the group is of an Ikhwani-type Islamism. The brigade was trusted to guard the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, but melted away at the first sign of trouble in September 2012. In June 2014, the brigade was subsumed under the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), which was put together in opposition to Haftar’s Operation DIGNITY and is now the most powerful force in Benghazi. The BRSC also contains Libya Shield 1, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigades, and Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda).
- Rafallah as-Sahati Brigades: A splinter of the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade led formally by Ismail al-Sallabi and led militarily by Salahadeen Bin Omran, the group has about 1,000 men and is based in Benghazi.
- Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade: Led by Ziyad Balaam, this is a small group—estimated at 200 militiamen in its infancy—named for the leader of the resistance to Italy in 1911-12 and 1935-36. Operating in Ajdabiya , south of Benghazi, it contains fighters from Ajdabiya, Benghazi, and Derna. The group’s initial commander—killed in April 2011—was Abdelmonem Mukhtar Mohammed, a long-time member of LIFG who had spent time with Osama bin Laden in Taliban Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, the group has been close to al-Qaeda on the ground.
- There are also various ethnic armed units, including for the indigenous Amazigh/Berber group in the coastal areas of Zuwara and in the Nafusa/Western Mountains, the Tuaregs, a nomadic Berber group whose cross-border links often have them associated with the mercenaries Qaddafi imported to fight against the rebellion, the Tubu, a black indigenous tribe in the south, and the Tawargha, black Africans who were imported as slaves mostly during Ottoman times and settled east of Misrata. All of these groups, except the Tawargha, suffered discrimination under Qaddafi. The Tawargha were incited by Qaddafi—who had, in a particularly quixotic moment of megalomania, dubbed himself the “king of the kings of Africa”—to avenge their slave ancestors by attacking the Arab rebels. The vengeance wrought by the Misrata militias drove tens of thousands of Tawargha out of the country, and the crude sectarian lines drawn by the regime brought revenge on other groups perceived as having been favoured by the old order.
And then there is Ansar al-Shari’a fi Libya (ASL), which never operated under even nominal State authority. Made up of fighters formerly of inter alia the Abu Ubayda al-Jarah militia, the Malik Brigades, and the February 17 Brigades, ASL has 5,000 men concentrated especially in the east of Libya around Benghazi, Sirte, and Derna. ASL is al-Qaeda’s (AQ) rebranded presence in the Maghreb. Responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other Americans, ASL was led by Ahmed Abu Khattala. After a humiliating episode in which Khattala was able to openly mock the U.S. and Libyan government to Western reporters at a luxury hotel in Benghazi a month after the attack, justice did finally catch up with Khattala in June 2014, when he was taken into U.S. custody in a raid into Benghazi. Khattala’s replacement, Mohamed az-Zahawi, died last month after sustaining an injury in September.
The damage Abu Musab az-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM)—now I.S.—did to AQ’s brand was one of the last things Osama bin Laden was working on. This strategy can be seen in Syria, where Jabhat an-Nusra was started by I.S. agents in August 2011 but did not reveal its AQ ties until April 2013. The idea was, as one of its members explained, “we would show our values, deal with people well, and then after a while we’d tell them, ‘The al-Qaeda that was smeared in the media? This is it. We are it. What do you think of us…?'” It has worked reasonably well: thanks to superior finance, which has allowed better weapons and payments for fighters, even Syrian rebels committed to democracy (the majority) have fought with Nusra and civilians, who have experienced chaos, are quite receptive to its ordered rule.
Al-Qaeda “Central” or Senior Leadership (AQC or AQSL) “dispatched trusted senior operatives as emissaries and leaders,” a Congressional report noted in August 2012, and these men would “supervise building a … core network in Libya, but it remains clandestine and refrains from using the al-Qaeda name.” The report predicted that AQ would “continue to mask its presence under the umbrella of the Libyan Salafist movement”. This has proven prescient.
One of AQ’s emissaries was Nazih Abdul-Hamed ar-Ruqai’i (alias: Abu Anas al-Libi), a conspirator in the 1998 Embassy bombings. Ruqai’i was a key link between AQC and ASL, playing the role for Ayman az-Zawahiri in Libya that Abu Khalid as-Suri had played in Syria: stopping the local franchise “going local”. Rounded up by U.S. SEALS in an October 2013 raid into Tripoli, Ruqai’i died in custody last month.
Other AQC operatives in ASL include Muhammad Jamal, an Egyptian loyal to Zawahiri—he even travelled to Pakistan to share documents he had captured in the chaos of post-revolutionary Egypt—who has operated training camps in northern Sinai and eastern Libya, and in collaboration with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) established contact with Islamist terrorists in Europe. Faraj al-Chalabi, a Libyan wanted by Interpol since March 1998 who once served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, is another important AQ member: he fled Libya for Pakistan shortly after the Benghazi attack, and is believed to have taken with him sensitive materials stolen from the compound. And then there is Sufian Ben Qumu, one of the “Afghan Arabs” and an associate of bin Laden’s who is believed to have trained some of the Salafi jihadists who carried out the Benghazi attack, and who is an ex-Guantánamo detainee to boot.
While ASL has not openly sworn baya (allegiance) to Zawahiri, in November 2014 both its Benghazi and Derna factions were added to the U.N.’s AQ blacklist as being at least “associated” with AQ. ASL (both parts) were accused of: collaborating in the Benghazi Consulate attack, and being associated with AQIM, Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia (which was added to the blacklist in September), and al-Mourabitoun, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who merged his AQIM splinter al-Mouakaoune Biddam (Those Who Sign In Blood) with another AQIM splinter, Le Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), in August 2013. Belmokhtar has openly sworn baya to Zawahiri.
Enter the Islamic State
It is against this background that an armed force claiming allegiance to the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has arisen. On Oct. 3, 2014, Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI, the Islamic Youth Shura Council), which had formed in April, gave baya to Baghdadi and claimed that the areas of Derna it controlled were now a province of the “Caliphate” called Wilayat Derna. Led by “a little-known Yemeni militant sent from Syria,” Mohammed Abdullah (a.k.a. Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi), MSSI had already taken steps akin to I.S. in the Fertile Crescent to impose its rule, mixing inducements, such as taking over al-Huraysh Hospital and providing public order, with terror—MSSI had begun imposing the hudud, had religious police on the streets, and even performed a public execution in a football stadium in August.
That I.S. loyalists should arise in Derna is no surprise. Derna was the centre of the LIFG insurgency against Qaddafi, with its protective terrain of the Green Mountain range. In 2007, the U.S. rolled up a network stretching from western Iraq through eastern Syria used by I.S.’s predecessor (with the help of the Assad regime) to send foreign Sunni jihadists into Iraq to war against constitutional order. The captured information, the Sinjar Records, revealed that Derna contributed more Salafi militants to the Mesopotamian jihad (52) than the Saudi capital (51). “[W]ith a population just over 80,000 compared to Riaydh’s 4.3 million, [Derna] has far and away the largest per capita number of fighters in the Sinjar records,” a report on the captured documents notes. Moreover, “Entire brigades of Darna natives fight in Syria’s civil war.” It is fighters from the Syrian war—the “Battar Group”—who form the core of I.S.’s Libya presence, including Azidi, who arrived in Libya in September 2014.
This flow of fighters from Syria to set up an I.S. branch in Libya in late 2014 was no accident. Over the summer of 2014, I.S. dispatched a delegation led by Abu Nabil al-Anbari, an ex-policeman of the Saddam Hussein regime, to Derna to forge ties with local Salafi jihadist groups, especially those linked with al-Qaeda, and organised, profit-making criminal networks. This was classic I.S., working behind-the-scenes “as it carefully forged alliances with fellow Islamists … while attacking oil fields and kidnapping workers.” In their new book on I.S., Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan document the way I.S.—drawing on the counterintelligence expertise given to it by its military leaders being the remnants of Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus—infiltrates areas and other insurgent groups with sleeper cells that can then be activated at the opportune moment. In this way, I.S. was a “shadow authority” in Mosul long before it openly pushed aside the Iraqi Security Forces in June 2014.
Baghdadi released an audio message on Nov. 13, 2014, which for the first time accepted the pledges of allegiance from groups outside Iraq and Syria. The statement accepted pledges from: MSSI in Libya, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt (which changed its name to Wilayat Sinai), Jund al-Khilafa in Algeria (rebranded Wilayat al-Jazair), and anonymous groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Baghdadi pointedly did not accept baya from the non-Arab groups like Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) in Indonesia, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines, or the six leaders of the Pakistani Taliban who pledged themselves to the “Caliph”. Baghdadi’s statement also underlined his philosophical differences with al-Qaeda: I.S.’s focus is on the “near enemy,” the impious Muslims, especially the rafida (Shi’ites), which at present often means Iran, and the “apostate” Arab rulers, while AQ has always been focussed on the “far enemy,” the West, as a means of cutting off the Arab regimes’ support so AQ can launch Islamic revolutions in these States.
In December 2014, “Islamic State’s main recruitment body in Turkey told its Libya-based associates to stop sending fighters to Syria and to focus on domestic attacks instead,” the Wall Street Journal reports. On Jan. 27, four I.S. jihadists, at least one of them a Tunisian, attacked the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, murdering five foreigners (including one U.S. citizen) and three local guards, and on Feb. 3, I.S. stormed a French-Libyan oil field near Mabruk, south of Sirte, killing nine guards. The leader of this latter attack was the Tarek Ibn Ziyad Brigade (TIZB), which has been affiliated by AQIM and is well-known to Western security for kidnappings that demand ransom in the Sahel. TIZB retreated to Libya, where it struck an alliance with ASL, after the French intervention in Mali in January 2013. Most infamously, on Feb. 15, a video emerged of I.S. beheading twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians.
Aaron Zelin has argued persuasively that the Islamic State’s “provinces” model is different from al-Qaeda’s “affiliates” model. Where groups in the mid-2000s tended to join AQ when they were failing in order to gain access to funds, groups now joining I.S. do so as they are expanding. While AQ tried to get the affiliates to focus on external attacks to keep the organisation relevant, it time-and-again found them focussing on local dynamics; I.S. encourages the focus on the local. AQ waited for spectacular attacks on the West before releasing propaganda to claim responsibility; I.S. has a relentless media stream telegraphing its efforts to expand, making it appear more active, and as the old saying goes, something beats nothing.
I.S. have also, according to Zelin, taken “full command and control” of the media operations of all the groups whose pledges of allegiance were accepted. AQ, on the other hand, has, as outlined above, spent the last several years trying to repair the damage done to its brand by an organisation that had been “practically cut off for … years,” as Adam Gadahn put it in 2011. Still, nothing of significance has come from the I.S. groups in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, or Yemen.
Riyadh says that the murder of seven Shi’ites in al-Ahsa on Nov. 3 was ordered by I.S., and the shooting and wounding of Thomas Hoepner, a Danish national, on Nov. 22 on a Saudi highway also seems to have been the work of I.S.’s Saudi supporters. A disputed claim from Jan. 27 says that I.S. attacked a Saudi border post before melting into the local population.
In Algeria, Jund al-Khilafa, which pledged allegiance to Baghdadi on Sept. 14, beheaded the French tourist Hervé Gourdel in a video released on Sept. 24. Algiers launched a massive crackdown in response that killed the group’s leader, Khaled Abu Sulayman (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Gouri), on Dec. 22, and since then “little has been heard“.
In Yemen, AQAP, which clearly has pro-I.S. members in its rank-and-file, had twisted every which way to remain neutral in the I.S.-AQ standoff. But Baghdadi’s speech forced their hand, and on Nov. 19 AQAP released a video in which its senior shari’i, Harith bin Ghazi an-Nadhari, rejected I.S.’s claim to a Caliphate and accused I.S. of sowing discord among the mujahideen. This runs a very serious risk of splitting AQAP, and the Houthi/Iranian takeover of Sanaa, which is already pushing Sunnis into the Salafi jihadist camp, might further encourage Sunnis to join a group like I.S. where the focus is so harshly on the “near enemy,” but for now AQAP’s stance seems to have insulated the jihadi community in Yemen against I.S.
The coup d’état in Egypt in July 2013 was one of the most helpful events to the Salafi jihadist cause in decades: those like al-Qaeda who ridiculed the Ikhwans for believing that their democracy-accepting, dawa-first program would ever be allowed to survive as a means of bringing Islam to power were vindicated. The Muslim Brotherhood won all five elections held after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but it was overthrown anyway. Sisi liquidated civilian democratic rule, massacred those who protested about it, and the West’s response was to say this was “restoring democracy“. The conclusion that only through violence could Islamists take power was thus not pulled from thin air. While the Brethren was in power, there was much discord between the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, HAMAS in Gaza, the Wahhabist Hizb an-Nur, and the Salafi jihadist insurgency in the Sinai. After the coup, all these forces are united in wanting to end military rule. More than a year ago, the Sinai insurgency was reaching Cairo. This is the operating environment I.S. had and it is no surprise that Sinai has proven one of its more fruitful international ventures.
But Libya offers I.S. the most promise. The groundwork of de facto governance, dawa (missionary activity), and chaos was in place before MSSI’s baya to Baghdadi. While the extent of I.S.’s reach in Libya is difficult to gauge, it seems to operate in Benghazi, Sirte, and Tripoli. I.S. has divided Libya into three wilayats (provinces)—Barqah (east), Tarabulus (west), and Fizan (south)—but this countrywide ambition is a gross exaggeration of what I.S. actually controls.
MSSI claimed to control Derna last October, but “in reality it only truly controls some neighborhoods“. The same was true when I.S. on Feb. 14 claimed to have taken control of Sirte; in fact they had taken over a radio station on Feb. 12. (There is a renewed claim this morning that Sirte has fallen to I.S., which has immediately closed the university. Time will tell if this is true.) I.S. did take over the small town of Nawfaliya, about eighty miles east of Sirte on Feb. 9.
Zelin estimates that a fifth of I.S.’s fighters in Libya are foreigners; this almost certainly represents a Nusra-to-I.S.-type pattern of defections from ASL to I.S. in Libya. It is, however, impossible to calculate the extent of the ASL defections.
I.S.’s presence in Libya is something more than mere branding: as can be seen from the video of the massacre of the Copts, the Libya-based I.S. has its media output controlled by I.S. in the Fertile Crescent, and members of I.S. “proper” oversaw the creation of I.S.’s infrastructure in Libya, both annexing parts of al-Qaeda’s old networks and building on the criminal/smuggling networks that can provide the group with revenue.
The Islamic State’s famous slogan is baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding), and no doubt the conditions are in place for it to hold its ground and burgeon in Libya. I.S. will work on ethnic and especially tribal faultlines, as it has so brilliantly done in Syria and Iraq, and its strategy of polarisation is already at work—witness the reaction to the Egyptian airstrikes, where Libya Dawn opposed and the Tobruk-based government supported. But this should not be exaggerated. For now, I.S.’s grip in Libya is relatively small and some conditions—such as the absence of a religious sectarian faultline—are conducive to I.S.’s eradication.
I have argued, and continue to believe, the failure of Western policy in Libya was not the decision to intervene to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and to help the Libyans with their only viable defence against Qaddafi—namely toppling the dictator. The failure was in not committing what would have been really quite limited resources—mostly military and intelligence trainers and advisers—to stabilising the aftermath. Indeed none other than President Obama appears to agree with this assessment.
“Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria,” said the President. His close adviser Ben Rhodes echoed this sentiment. So Obama agrees that the intervention per se—even with a messy outcome—was better than no intervention. In Libya, 72 civilians were killed accidentally in NATO’s entire campaign, less than one day’s work from Assad, and estimates of the military casualties are being revised down all the time. In Syria, 300,000 people and more are dead and the chaos has opened the way to worse actors. (That Obama has elsewhere said the idea that intervening earlier in Syria to support the moderates would have resulted in a better outcome was “horseshit,” can be safely put down the political necessity of never admitting a mistake.) On the other half of this argument—that more needed to be done in the aftermath—Obama also agrees but says he “underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this.” Obama ran for office against the Iraq invasion in no small part highlighting the incompetence of the Bush administration’s reconstruction. The need for a post-war plan is the most salient lesson of the Iraq experience. It seems unlikely this came to Obama after 2011: the 2012 Election, where the President ran on his record of extricating the U.S. from the Middle East, Iraq most notably, serves as a much better explanation for why Obama would not commit to Libya in a way that could be interpreted as “boots on the ground”.
The options for what to do now are limited and unappealing. In response to the release of the video of the massacre of the Copts on Sunday, Egypt began bombing Derna and Sirte on Monday “to avenge the bloodshed and seek retribution“. Egypt acted alone in this case, unlike August, when Egypt last struck into Libya, when Cairo was accompanied by the United Arab Emirates.
Sisi has called for an international mandate for Egypt to intervene in Libya and a lifting of the arms embargo so the legitimate government in Tobruk can be empowered. There is much irony to go around that Egypt’s blood-stained tyrant is taking as his trigger for action the murders of Egypt’s much-persecuted Copts, but there it is. There is no appetite for Western soldiers to be put into Libya and to allow the chaos to go on is destabilising the whole region, including Europe by sending waves of refugees across the Mediterranean—this is why Italy has also called for international action—and providing a training ground for Salafi jihadists from all over the world. Which leaves Egypt’s ramshackle military and its’ allied militias inside Libya as the West’s only proxies.
On Feb. 11, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) arrived in Ghadamis to begin trying to broker reconciliation between the Tripoli- and Tobruk-based governments. If this effort is to have any chance of success, Cairo is going to have to rein-in its definition of the enemy. Egypt’s airstrikes last summer hit Misrata and that town was apparently on the list of possible targets this time around; Misrata has no I.S. presence but does contain some of the key Libya Dawn militias.
There has been resistance to I.S. from local populations in Libya, though events like the July 2014 assassination of liberal female MP Fariha al-Berkawi have dampened communities’ willingness to openly protest the takfiris. There has also been armed resistance, notably from Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade (ASMB) in Derna. ASMB is no Westerner’s idea of ideal: a stern Salafist unit that wants shari’a, and has a sideline in the drugs trade, ASMB nonetheless believes in democracy, is nationalist in orientation, and was furious that MSSI should pledge baya to a foreigner. The Sisi-Haftar definition, however, would include such a group in with the “terrorists,” which will hinder efforts to form some kind of stable administration—perpetuating the chaos that is the precondition for I.S.’s rise in the first place.
The proxy war element of Libya’s war could actually be helpful in bringing order: if Libya Dawn’s Qatari and Turkish patrons, and the Tobruk/Haftar supporters in Egypt, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia, could be convinced that their interests could be met in a power-sharing arrangement, their leverage with the on-the-ground forces could be invaluable.
This is deeply imperfect, but leveraging the regional sponsors of Libya’s militias into forming a coalition government between the nationalists/tribalists and nationalist-Islamists to bring some stability and to fight against the transnational jihadists seems like the least awful of the series of bad options that are available.
Ultimately, the lesson of Libya is one that keeps being shown from Afghanistan to Iraq to Bosnia: by refusing the small, early intervention when allies would be easier to enlist, the U.S. ends up intervening at much greater cost later, almost alone, and achieving a far less desirable outcome.
Correction: Post initially said Thomas Hoepner has been fatally wounded in the November 2014 shooting; a Twitter follower pointed out this error.