The trajectory of instability and terrorism in Libya will determine the future of North Africa and could affect the entire Mediterranean rim, possibly for decades. Time is running out for effective preventive action.
Comparisons can be dangerous, but Libya could easily become the Somalia of the Maghreb – or even worse, North Africa’s version of the proxy war in Syria that now involves the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a host of client states.
Certainly Islamic State sees Libya as its most promising safe haven. As the spread of the terror group is stemmed and then rolled back in Iraq and Syria, it is relocating key combatants to Libya. From there it is working to expand its territorial control and training bases, while at the same time making large sums of money from trafficking refugees (not yet from oil) and seemingly also consolidating its control over western areas of the country.
In Iraq, Islamic State gained enormous traction by exploiting the resentment against the disastrous decision by the US to invade Iraq. The recruitment of Ba’athist military and intelligence officers from former dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime into the structures of Islamic State transformed it from a fringe grouping into a formidable force that was eventually able to rout the Iraqi military despite US backing and support.
In Libya, the Islamic State’s stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home town, potentially draws on the same type of resentment. As in Iraq, Islamic State and Gaddafi loyalists share the belief that the new political leaders in Libya (there are currently two governments that the United Nations is trying to reconcile) are being imposed by the West.
Though events in Libya have some parallels with Iraq, these developments also share a number of important characteristics with Somalia, where it took more than a dozen peace agreements and two decades before the African Union was able to create the conditions for a halting peace. It did so after three failed international interventions backed by the might of the US military.
The AU eventually deployed the AU Mission in Somalia in support of a fragile political process. This calculated gamble took several years and thousands of casualties before legitimate politics gained a foothold, eventually allowing the international community to back African efforts.
New unity government hinges on a secure nation
For Libya, the most important lesson to be learnt from Somalia is the need for a speedy political agreement that will allow for the deployment and training of sufficient ground forces to stabilise the situation, provide security and change the facts on the ground.
Libyans will only support, or come around to support, a new unity government if they are secure. Because the country is awash with arms and rebels, that won’t be easy.
As in Somalia, Libyans are a tribal and fractured bunch, and probably only united in their resentment of foreign engagement. Even Islamic State is finding it hard to enter places such as Derna, where local forces expelled them from the city. This domestic resistance may change. As more Libyan combatants return home from Syria, where they fought against Bashar al-Assad, the benefit of local knowledge, contacts and fighters could undercut domestic resistance against Islamic State.
The growing prominence of Islamic State in Libya is predictably drawing much attention from Western powers, which are alarmed by the possibility of a terrorist launch pad being established just across the Mediterranean from Europe. Eventually, only Libyans can and should provide that security, but in the meantime external support is urgently needed. The dilemma is that the wrong type of external intervention in Libya, particularly from the West, could exacerbate the crisis.
As has been the case elsewhere, the inevitable collateral damage that accompanies US and other aerial attacks intended to “take out” key terrorists (without first being legitimised through due process, or as part of a political process) will inflame tensions. It could also drive recruits to join Islamic State and its local allies, as happened in Iraq.
Libya’s leaders and its public have been fed an unending diet of anti-Western rhetoric for decades. Gaddafi went as far as supporting terrorist groups in Europe, such as the Red Army Faction in Italy, the Red Brigades in Germany and the Irish Republican Army, and even tried to build a nuclear and chemical weapons arsenal, allegedly to counter Israel’s nuclear stockpile.
In 1986, in response to an explosion at a disco frequented by US soldiers in West Berlin, Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya. Revenge followed two years later with the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland – an act for which the Libyan government eventually accepted responsibility and paid compensation.
It is against this background that, late last year, a US strike in eastern Libya reportedly killed Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a veteran Iraqi military officer believed to have been sent to Libya to organise and lead Islamic State there. Two weeks ago, on February 19, the US conducted its most recent air attack in Libya. More than 40 people were killed in the attack, which targeted Islamic State fighters in Sabratha, just 70km from the Tunisian border. Islamic State has been using the area mostly to train recruits from Tunisia.
A few days ago, a senior Libyan military commander acknowledged that French special forces and military advisers were helping to co-ordinate Libyan forces fighting Islamic State in the eastern city of Benghazi. Earlier Italy, a former colonial power, announced it would allow the US Air Force to use a base in Sicily to carry out drone strikes in Libya.
More extensive military involvement, including training missions or a proposed Italian-led stabilisation force, requires an internationally recognised government in Libya.
A Libyan crisis would affect Africa
Much depends on the success of the UN-backed negotiations to create a single unity government. The agreement could pave the way for external assistance. Exactly how that support will be provided is unclear, but the most desirable outcome must be a sufficiently large Afro-Arab ground force that can restore stability in key population centres.
This is a huge task and significant combat capabilities, dominance of the air and sea, and sufficient ground forces will be needed to do the job. Nato could quite readily provide key stand-off assets such as attack helicopters and other force multipliers, but it is the absence of ground forces that is proving much more difficult. The choices appear dismal, but the longer it takes to deploy ground forces to work with those of a government of national unity to build domestic security capacity, the more difficult and messy the subsequent process will be.
In the absence of a political settlement, unleashing the United States (or Nato) on Islamic State will likely end in disaster, as has happened almost everywhere else. Without the ability to secure populations, isolated surgical strikes on Islamic State will rapidly increase rather than decrease its support.
Thus far, the AU has largely been absent from Libya, leaving the UN, under Martin Kobler, its special representative and head of the UN support mission there, to try to herd the two governments (based in Tripoli and Tobruk respectively) towards a peace agreement. Beyond regular statements from the AU Peace and Security Council, the only visible action has been the appointment of Tanzania’s former president, Dr Jakaya Kikwete, as the AU high representative for Libya. This is a blind spot that needs correction.
Libya presents as many dangers and challenges to Africa as it does to Europe. It underscores the importance of maintaining stability in Algeria, which is under pressure from within, and is now also suffering from the economic impact of a depressed oil price. The imminent succession challenge to an elderly and sickly President Abdelaziz Bouteflika could, in this context, prove disruptive.
Under current conditions, a crisis in Algeria would reverberate throughout the region, including in Tunisia and across the Mediterranean into southern Europe. In the past, Gaddafi exported instability to Chad and Sudan (among others), and events in Libya after the Arab Spring infected Mali and Sudan.
What happens in Libya will reflect across the entire Sahel, from Morocco in the west to Somalia in the east. Without adequate preventive action, Islamic State-aligned forces could potentially link Boko Haram in Nigeria across the Maghreb to al-Shabab in Somalia.
Such a worst-case scenario would make Syria or Somalia seem an easy challenge.
Jakkie Cilliers is head of the African futures and innovation section at the Institute for Security Studies.
International force readied for Tripoli
A 5?000-strong, Italian-led international force is ready to deploy in Libya as concern grows over the threat from extremist groups in the country and with dozens killed in clashes in neighbouring Tunisia on Monday.
Tunisian security forces fought off an attack near the Libyan border – the second such clash in a week. At least 53 people were killed, the interior and defence ministries said in a statement: 35 attackers, seven civilians and 11 members of the security forces.
The group responsible for the attack was not identified, though the United States and European governments are increasingly worried about the spread of the Islamic State in Libya.
The Italian government is working on a plan to send a force to help mentor and train a new Libyan army if the Parliament there formally votes to support a unity government. After that vote, the government would then have to invite the Italian-led force to deploy. Deployment would take at least a month.
Associated Press reported a hospital official, Abdelkrim Sakroud, saying on state radio that a 12-year-old girl was among the civilians who were killed in the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane.
Chaos has engulfed Libya since the Nato-backed ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A host of countries have volunteered to contribute to the Italian-led force, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Arab countries. The US is already engaged in airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya. French and other special forces are also on the ground. – Ewen MacAskill © Guardian News & Media 2016