The American F-15 has been rolling off the production line since 1970 but in its forty-five-year history, nothing has been as impressive as the impunity with which it operates in the skies above Libya. This was most recently demonstrated on the morning of February 19th, in which two F-15s broke cloud clover high above the Mediterranean and in the early light of the Libyan dawn unleashed their payload hitting an ISIS training camp. This strike was the latest part of a sustained campaign by the US to communicate the message that Libya is no safe haven for members of the Islamic State attempting to avoid the flurry of aircraft that patrol the skies above Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State in Libya requires substantial analysis before any kind of solution can be analyzed, let alone proposed. ISIS officially formed a presence in Libya in September 2014 after Al-Baghdadi had sent Abu Nabil al-Anbari and Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi to start its newest franchise in the country. It is worth noting that al-Anbari was killed in an F-15 strike in 2015 and el-Azdi seems to be destined for a similar fate once he is found by American special forces, like all ISIS senior figures heading the Libyan wing of the organization. ISIS arguably views Libya as a ‘fallback’[i], a possible point of retreat in the event of a defeat or serious degradation in its current territory held in Iraq and Syria. Some 6,000 jihads are now based in Libya, battling for influence and territory in and amongst the lattice of groups which exist in the collapsed state. The group ‘dominates a 120-mile stretch of territory extending east along the coast from the town of Sirte.’[ii] It is in this stretch that ISIS has been able to exploit oil facilities in order to minimize the threat from the Libyan government but also raise funds for the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The stretch has brought some relief for senior IS figures who can operate with a less constant danger of air strikes, it has been recently reported that Abu Omar al-Shishani, who recruited Mohammed Emwazi, has settled in Sirte.[iii] ISIS also has a presence throughout the string of major Libyan cities that sit on the coast and this creates the first major issue in defeating ISIS in Libya: the lack of control in core national cities. It is evident then, that IS in Libya has a foothold and given the precarious balance that exists in the country, this foothold has the potential to expand substantially. It is with this knowledge, that a proposal for defeating IS in Libya becomes far more complex.
The current American strategy carries more risk than benefit in its mission to secure Libya and eradicate the Islamic State from its borders. The current combination of American special forces and warplanes is evidently doing a degree of good in disrupting the short-term operation of the group in Libya. However, there are issues with their approach, which manifest far more seriously in the specific case of Libya. Such a casual intervention with only some support from what remains of the Libyan intersessional government, is only likely to place further stress on relations within the Libyan parliament. Secondly, any weakness in the Islamic State in Libya will likely be exploited by any of the other jihadi groups that roam the Libyan coast.
The major stumbling bloc to the defeat of the Islamic State in Libya comes from the current government, or lack thereof. Following from the UN-brokered agreement to form a unity government, responsibility has fallen to the Presidency Council to obtain “the formal support of Libya’s two rival legislatures and take office in the capital, Tripoli.”[iv] Presuming that the Council was able to achieve such a feat, which seems unlikely, it would then be faced with the task of rebuilding the Libyan armed forces. Such a task is near impossible, with the two current Western schools of thought ignoring the segregation and factionalism that exists between the groups that might be able to confront Libya’s security threats.
The solution to Libyan stability lies in a coordinated counterterrorism campaign alongside the building of Libyan political and security institutions. In other words, the fleeting American attempt at security through F-15 bombing runs must run in parallel to, but also in subsidiary of, efforts to ‘support the establishment of integrated structures and units in the security sector.’[v] It is worth noting that the last Western attempt at counterterrorism training focused on the 22nd Libyan Special Operations Battalion that failed precisely because there was not a structure for the men to join. The webbing of factional militias prevented these skilled soldiers from achieving what was potentially a breakthrough. Such a restructure will merit substantial political engagement into the depths of the old armed forces structure, as well as a new cooperation between the leadership of the newly created armed forces and the Presidency Council. Western military assistance must have the dual effect of aiding the armed forces on the ground but also being an integrational force amongst the groups that will support elements of the newly structured Libyan army. In one proposal, it was argued that to be ‘eligible to receive counterterrorism support armed groups should accept the unity government and subordinate themselves to its national command structure.’[vi] Aside from the hardware provisions, Western advisors must ensure that coordinating mechanisms operate between Libyan forces on the group to prevent factional conflict. Furthermore, the proposed structures of the Libyan army must hold for such an operation to be a success and even so, it possess great challenges.
The challenge facing the West in Libya is enormous, yet the solution is not vastly complex to envisage. The continuation of the current American policy would do neither Libya nor the West any favors, yet the absence of a unified Libyan government is not an issue solved over night. US President Obama spoke fittingly of the Western obligation to the Libyan people in the midst of the revolution saying ‘The people of Libya must be protected and in the absence of an immediate end to the violence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act and act with urgency.’[vii] Obama’s words hold more resonance now more than they did then when swift action followed, and we must hope for such action again.