Unity government sought to strike ISIS in Libya
Washington - In response to the growing threat of the Islamic State (ISIS), the United States is weighing the potential effectiveness of a military intervention in Libya to prevent the extremist group from establishing a foothold in Sirte, similar to those in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria.
Libya’s daunting domestic challenges, however, limit US options in Libya.
Mounting pressure in Iraq and Syria has prompted ISIS to shift resources to Libya. US defence officials estimate that more than 6,000 ISIS fighters have arrived in Libya in the past six months.
The presence of ISIS in Libya started at the end of 2014 when 300 fighters left battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria to open a new front in North Africa. Even though an alliance of Libyan Islamist groups succeeded last July in expelling the fighters from Derna, ISIS seized control of Sirte in November.
Pentagon spokeswoman US Army Lieutenant-Colonel Michelle Baldanza told The Arab Weekly the United States remains “deeply concerned about the growing threat” of ISIS in Libya and said that the best way to counter this threat is “to help Libyans continue to build the national consensus”.
After neglecting Libya for more than two years, the international community is urging warring parties to end the political crisis to focus on fighting ISIS. But the United Nations’ peace efforts are moving at a slow pace compared to the extremist group’s rapid expansion as it attempts to consolidate control over the ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Brega, which together account for 60% of Libya’s oil production.
Most importantly, rival parties in Libya have been more interested in fighting each other than ISIS. The greatest challenge of the fragile national unity government remains to exert influence over the military and the armed groups across the country. Regardless of the political dynamics, the United States did not hesitate in November to target and kill Abu Nabil, one of the group’s leaders in Libya, in an air strike. Furthermore, US commandos have been operating in Libya for months, collecting intelligence and assessing local forces’ readiness and willingness to fight ISIS.
The limited US intervention will likely be similar to the one in Syria: air strikes and aerial surveillance along with the deployment of special operations to conduct raids against high-value ISIS targets and enable local forces to launch an offensive against the extremist group. A sense of urgency to respond is shared by US allies. The threat ISIS poses in Libya is the proximity to southern Europe and the group’s connection to Boko Haram in Niger, which affects the stability of West Africa’s Sahel region and has spillover risks in neighbouring North African countries.
With access to the Mediterranean and a strategic location between Tripoli and Benghazi, the West is concerned that ISIS in Libya will become a hub for European and North African fighters.
Yet the talk about an imminent intervention in Libya seems to be fading. Many governments, including Egypt and Britain, signalled a lack of appetite to support a direct intervention. The question remains if Washington will intervene without political unity in Libya or without an official request from the divided new cabinet.
Baldanza said the United States has demonstrated a willingness to take direct action to protect America from “threats from abroad” but will continue in parallel efforts of “mitigating conflict, promoting stability and strengthening governance”. She expected that these two goals “will increasingly be mutually reinforcing”.
If the political process fails in Libya, the United States seems keen to act independently by striking ISIS. Yet, without an effective national unity government in place or local forces willing to lead the fight on the ground, any military intervention will have no guarantees of success.