Middle East & North Africa

Stopping the Spread: Can the Islamic State Be Halted in Libya?

As the Islamic State established a pseudo-state across Syria and Iraq, the United States was forced to reengage in the region, putting thousands of troops back into Iraq, launching a large-scale air campaign, and deploying hundreds of special forces soldiers into Syria to roll back the group. But is there a way to stop it before it builds a new base? In Libya, a similar formula is being applied as a preventative measure, a testing ground to see if using small teams of special forces working with local groups can be used to stop the enemy before it can entrench itself.

Recent reporting confirms that U.S. forces have been stationed near Misurata and Benghazi since sometime late in 2015. These small forces are tasked with cultivating relationships with local fighters to engage in an offensive against the Islamic State, as well as developing intelligence, both on the Islamic State networks and on potential allies.

But the Islamic State in Libya is a daunting opponent. Expanding quickly throughout 2015, the group seized the town of Sirte and surrounding villages, and the United States estimates that it numbers up to 6,000 fighters and counting. Though some reports suggest that the Islamic State is having trouble with continued expansion due to a lack of local knowledge, that has not stopped it from setting up rudimentary forms of government, imposing harsh Islamist law, and brutally repressing those who deviate from its directives in the territory it does control. Its foothold also allows it to recruit, plan attacks, and prepare for expansion to neighboring countries.

U.S. forces must also contest with the myriad factions that are competing for dominance throughout Libya. Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, two rival administrations backed by various militias have vied for control, but neither has fully achieved it. A new U.N.-brokered unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), recently arrived in Tripoli, but it remains to be seen if this government can actually gain popular support and unite the warring factions.

Within this context, the United States faces a huge task. Special forces must identify and work with militias that have spent years battling each other for control and persuade them to work in concert to push out the Islamic State. And though the goal of defeating the Islamic State may be shared, there is no guarantee that these groups will act in unison and fight together. Already multiple factions have set up independent command centers for an offensive, and as the Washington Post reported, “American officials fear that uncoordinated offensives will only afford the Islamic State an opportunity to grow stronger.”

Recent gains suggest that the militia forces have been able to coalesce into an effective fighting force. The militias seem to have taken back most of Sirte, removing the key Islamic State stronghold. But this brings secondary problems, primarily the risk that in the event a coalition does defeat the Islamic State, the militias simply go back to fighting each other. The Sirte offensive, for instance, has been primarily led by militias backing the GNA, including the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). And though the group was ostensibly set up to protect Libya’s oil facilities, some allege that the PFG is nothing more than a private army for its leader and question its allegiance to the government it only recently promised to protect. The GNA/PFG dynamic does not even take into account General Khalifa Haftar, the Egypt-backed leader of forces in Eastern Libya who has set himself up as an alternative to the GNA and is holding out from the Sirte offensive. While outside the purview of the small special forces mission, bringing Haftar into the fold is essential for any chance at Libyan unity. Though he may be officially welcomed to join GNA forces, there are already signs some commanders will not accept him.

For now, it appears that fighting a common enemy is providing a temporary unifying glue and could eventually foster lasting cooperation between these various factions; alternatively, once that enemy is gone, it all may come undone, with each group seeking to maintain its authority over its respective powerbases and localities. For the United State this is not a new problem. After the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen factions turned to fighting each other, allowing the Taliban to emerge. In Iraq, the United States worked hard to unite Sunni tribal forces to crush al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), but those same groups, alienated by a Shiite-dominated central government, put up minimal resistance as AQI reemerged as the Islamic State.

This time around, if a coalition does manage to extricate territory from Islamic State control, U.S. forces will need to ensure the militias remain and provide basic services and security. Sirte became a breeding ground for the Islamic State partly because it was completely neglected by the major factions in Libya, making it a relatively undefended and easy target. And now, as one Libya expert notes, “the forces coming from three different parts of Libya probably had no interest in staying in Sirte longer than necessary and would want to pass responsibility to the town’s elders and former authorities.” Even if Islamic State fighters are destroyed, without security guarantees in newly freed territories the Islamic State will simply regroup and return to exploit the vacuum.

The Obama Administration knows what happens when an infection like the Islamic State is allowed to spread. Now, it is banking on using special forces to prevent Libya from turning into another Syria. While there is a path to success in theory, it is highly dependent on the United States and its allies’ collective ability to manage the various factions competing for power. More than a decade of fighting across the Middle East has taught the United States that successfully navigating political forces on the ground is close to impossible for outsiders. But in Libya it will try again, hopefully forestalling the need for a much larger commitment and finally halting the Islamic State’s expansion.

Image:  Libyan soldiers await orders at a checkpoint in Brega, Libya – 4 March 2011 (credit: Al Jazeera, creative commons release/Wikimedia)

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