By Scott Stewart
Many indicators suggest that European and regional powers along with the United States are once again gearing up for an intervention in Libya. These signs include increased surveillance activity over the North African country, reports of U.S., British and French soldiers already on the ground, and leaks that countries in the region are being approached to provide assistance.
Libya is mired in a period of protracted chaos. Jihadists aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic State now control substantial portions of the country. Thanks to their connections with other militant groups in the region, there is a network that provides training and weapons reaching from the Sinai Peninsula to West Africa.
It is understandable that the United States and its allies feel compelled to intervene in Libya to degrade the power of these jihadist groups. However, given the divisive and fractious nature of Libya, putting together a viable and sustainable political system after the military intervention will remain the greatest challenge.
Unshackling the Jihadists
In February 2011, a month before the NATO-led international coalition intervened in the Libyan civil war, I wrote that overthrowing Gadhafi could plunge Libya into chaos that would allow jihadists to flourish. I based this assessment on the continued involvement of Libyans in global jihadist activities from the 1980s in Afghanistan through Chechnya, Bosnia and Iraq. This was exacerbated by Moammar Gadhafi's policy of keeping his security and military forces weak, fractured and dependent on him. Throughout its own history, al Qaeda has had a disproportionate number of Libyan leaders, considering the population of Libya compared to the rest of the Muslim world. Senior al Qaeda figures hailing from Libya have included Abu Yahya al-Libi, Anas al-Libi, Abu Faraj al-Libi and Abu Laith al-Libi.
The degree of Libyan involvement in Iraq was perhaps best documented in a batch of personnel files captured by U.S. troops from an al Qaeda safe house in the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in 2007. These documents, often referred to as "the Sinjar files," contained the details of 595 jihadists who had traveled to Iraq to fight. Of these 595, 112 were Libyans. The number of Libyans in this sample was smaller than the 244 Saudis, but when compared against the populations of their respective countries, the Libyans had a higher per capita participation rate than the Saudis. The Libyans also appeared to be more radical than the Saudis: 85 percent of the Libyans asked to be suicide bombers complied, compared to only 50 percent of the Saudis.
Of the Libyan jihadists represented in the Sinjar files, 60 percent of them had listed their home city as Darnah and around 24 percent had come from Benghazi. Gadhafi's security apparatus kept a close eye on returning jihadists and used a strong carrot-and-stick approach to keep them under control prior to the outbreak of the civil war in early 2011. On reflection, the pro-jihadist sentiment in Libya's east helps explain why those cities were hotbeds of anti-Gadhafi revolutionary sentiment and why jihadists remain a powerful force in Darnah and Benghazi today.
I believed back in 2011 that this strong jihadist current, combined with literally tons of loose weapons, was a potentially deadly combination for Western interests in Libya, writing that:
This bodes ill for foreign interests in Libya, where they have not had the same security concerns in recent years that they have had in Algeria or Yemen. If the Libyans truly buy into the concept of targeting the far enemy that supports the state, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for them to begin to attack multinational oil companies, foreign diplomatic facilities and even foreign companies and hotels.
This forecast was proved tragically correct on Sept. 11, 2012, when the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi was attacked. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and State Department communicator Sean Smith were killed, along with two CIA contractors later that night when a CIA annex was attacked. Since then, jihadists have continued to attack hotels and kill or kidnap foreigners.
But the jihadist ideology is not the only divisive factor in Libya. Indeed, there are a number of significant ethnic, tribal and regional fault lines inside Libya. I was referencing these divisions in August 2011 (two months before the death of Gadhafi) when I wrote the following:
As the experiences of recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan have vividly illustrated, it is far easier to depose a regime than it is to govern a country. It has also proved to be very difficult to build a stable government from the remnants of a long-established dictatorial regime. History is replete with examples of coalition fronts that united to overthrow an oppressive regime but then splintered and fell into internal fighting once the regime they fought against was toppled. In some cases, the power struggle resulted in a civil war more brutal than the one that brought down the regime. In other cases, this factional strife resulted in anarchy that lasted for years as the iron fist that kept ethnic and sectarian tensions in check was suddenly removed, allowing those issues to re-emerge.
The country's fractures were clearly on display during the recent attempts to create a unity government sanctioned by both the Tripoli-based General National Council government and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. But even if the United Nations and the international community are able to pressure the rival Tripoli and Tobruk governments to overcome their differences and work together, that divide only represents one of the fault lines in Libya today. And each of these two competing governments represent only a fraction of Libya. A number of other powerful political groups and militias — such as Ibrahim Jadhran's Petroleum Facilities Guard — will have to be persuaded to join the new unity government, or in the case of the jihadist groups, defeated militarily.
The worst-case scenario we foresaw in 2011 has come to pass: Several jihadist groups are flourishing in Libya and are negatively impacting the country's internal security. And, through their training camps and transfers of weapons, the security of places from Sinai to Senegal is also in question. If there is one silver lining in this bleak situation, it is that the proliferation of Libyan man-portable air-defense systems and anti-tank guided missiles has not had the regional terrorist impact we feared. There were a few Libyan missiles used in the Sinai Peninsula, but these projectiles have not yet been used to attack a civilian airliner, attack an embassy or assassinate a public official.
As the United States and its European and regional allies prepare to intervene in Libya, they should be able to reduce the jihadist's ability to openly control territory. However, they will face the same challenge they did in 2011: building a stable political system from the shattered remains of what was once a country. Now, Libya is a patchwork of territories controlled by a variety of ethnic, tribal and regional warlords. The last five years of fighting has led to significant hatred and blood feuds between these competing factions, which will only compound the challenges ahead.
Clearly the Humpty Dumpty that was Libya is shattered. Putting him back together again will be a long and onerous task.