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Libya: Military Intervention Would Only Strengthen the Islamic State

[Image of Libyans rallying against federalism. Image by Magharebia/Flickr] [Image of Libyans rallying against federalism. Image by Magharebia/Flickr]

For two years French, British, and Italian political and military leaders, as well as US neo-conservatives left over from the presidency of George W. Bush, have been contemplating another military intervention in Libya. Ostensibly, the idea would be to eradicate the Islamic State (IS) in Libya once and for all. Yet, IS' capacity to establish itself in a lasting manner has proven limited. Furthermore, such a plan simply avoids the crucial issue: the need to build a legitimate and unified state in Libya. In the end, an operation of this sort would probably create more problems than it is intended to solve.

This time, the stated objective would not be “the protection of the civilian population” but the destruction of IS as part of the “war on terror,” an initiative given new life since the Paris attacks on 13 November. As currently conceived by British, French, Italian, and US military staff, the ideal scenario for an intervention would start with a request for assistance from a government of national entente, formed per the 17 December 2015 agreement in Skhirat, Morocco, under pressure from the Western powers and the United Nations (UN). If the return of this government to Libya (which has been prevented so far only by the hostility of certain factions) could not occur quickly enough, plan B would consist of an intervention without the support of a legitimate local government.

However, official declarations notwithstanding, what do we actually know about the specific traits, strengths, and weakness of IS in Libya? We know that the organization regards its presence in that country as the keystone of its communication strategy, and that it makes no effort to conceal its intention of preventing the reconstruction of a nation-state. However, its capacity to put down roots and extend its domain needs to be analyzed in terms of Libyan regional particularities, which differ sharply from those of Syria or Iraq.

According to UN estimates based on those of “certain member States” (as an official report has put it) IS in Libya has a contingent of 3,500 men[1]. Authorities in Tripoli place the figure at 1,500 men, most of them stationed in and around the city of Sirte, on the outskirts of Derna, and in certain districts of Benghazi.

Geography and Local Alliances

Less than four months after Mosul fell to IS on 3 October 2014, the local jihadist group majliss choura chabab al-islam (Islamic Youth Shura Council) in Derma officially joined forces with IS. Six weeks later, IS acknowledged this allegiance and made Cyrenaica one of its provinces (wilayat barca) on par with those in Iraq and Syria. In February 2015, it was the city of Sirte's turn to fall into the hands of IS and be proclaimed the capital of the province of Tripolitania (wilayat tarabulus).

In Libya, IS' capacity to “set up shop” in a town or a region is chiefly determined by local considerations that reflect the diversity of issues at stake in the different towns and regions.

Since the inception of the uprising and civil war in 2011 the situation in Libya has been characterized by acute geographical fragmentation and a predominance of local issues over nation-wide conceptions and ideological stances. Thus, the choice to form an alliance with one camp or another is determined by one or more strategies specific to the local situation: these include an alliance with the strongest party for its ability to protect a minority; an arbitration between rival parties in the absence of a sufficiently powerful local group, or, in the event of the severe deterioration of the social fabric, out of solidarity with a family or clan-member; the charisma of a militia chief or cleric; or the simple logic of predation.

Derna, the first IS enclave in Libya, was, as recently as a year ago, thought to be an impregnable stronghold. Yet, local militias conquered it with no help from general Khalifa Haftar's embryonic national army, comprised primarily of tribes traditionally hostile to Derna.

In Benghazi, IS troops are fighting on two out of the seven battlefronts against general Haftar's units and the local militia. However, while alliances to fight Haftar's troops are formed between IS and the larger Islamist militia attached to the advisory council of the Benghazi revolutionaries, such relations are often strained.

Sirte then, often described by Western media as the “Libyan Raqqa” (with reference to the Syrian capital of IS) is the only city where the IS militia has been able to gain a firm foothold. The history and sociology of Sirte help to explain this fact. Sirte was once Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold. And indeed, the last pockets of his regime's resistance were in Sirte, where the former "Guide of the Revolution" spent his last days. Often described by its inhabitants as the “Libyan Dresden”[2] due to the massive bombardments of the city in 2011, Sirte has thus far been excluded from the new Libya. Its tribes have been ostracized and its social fabric damaged by population displacement and bombings. No local militia with any revolutionary legitimacy has appeared in Sirte since the fall of the old regime. Law and order have been ensured by the Misrata militia, who are viewed as an occupying force and who behave as such with the local population. The backbone of the Misrata military presence in Sirte is supplied by the katiba Al-Farouq. This militia is composed of young men who belonged to Ansar Al-Sharia before converting to jihadism and pledging their allegiance to IS at the end of 2014. 

These groups and their foreign recruits (Somalians, Tunisians, Algerians, Mauritanians, Malians, and Egyptians, in particular) are imposing a reign of terror, intimidation, and retribution on a vulnerable population desperate for law and order. They are also benefiting from individuals espousing their cause and in-fighting among local factions. 

IS has also turned the situation in Misrata to its advantage. The city is located in the heart of a desert region and at the intersection of the zones of influence of the Tobruq and Tripoli parliaments. The two entities are so intent on their struggle for national hegemony that they neglect the struggle against IS. The city of Misrata itself is divided between partisans of IS and champions of the defense of Tobruq.

Fueling Division 

The city of Derna, however, provides a counter-example. There, an alliance of rival local militia managed to stand against an attack by IS fighters, proving that these forces are not without resistance so long as there exists a local or regional alternative. Sirte, on the other hand, shows that IS can move in when there is no local force to resist it. 

IS is aware that, for the moment, its troops cannot conquer a vast territory in Libya as they have done in Iraq and Syria. Consequently, the strategy adopted appears to consist of fueling rivalries between its enemies so as to prevent the formation of a government of national unity. The strategy is implemented in particular through terrorist attacks against symbolic objectives in both camps. IS has also been targeting oil facilities under the control of Ibrahim Jadhran's federalist guards, more with an eye on putting them out of commission than taking them over. Having failed to extend its territorial hold to the East or the West since summer 2015, IS seems to be trying to develop its action in the direction of the Sahel with a recruitment campaign among Tuaregs, as evidenced by its Internet propaganda in tamacheq.[3] 

Universal Condemnation of Suicide Attacks

The reactions to a 8 January 2016 truck bombing of a police academy in Zliten that killed at least sixty young recruits, as well as the suicide attack against the oil refinery at Ras Lanuf, may be a sign that the tide is turning against IS. Indeed, the Ras Lanuf attack immediately brought about a preliminary tactical pact between the Misrata militia—affiliated with the Dawn of Libya coalition—and Ibrahim Jadhran's oil-field guards, who were still fighting over the oil terminal at Al-Sidra in late 2014. Notably, this new cooperation resulted in the creation of a joint operations room, the medical evacuation of wounded oil-guards to hospitals in Misrata, and the deployment of the Misrata air force in support of Jadhran's troops fighting IS. 

The horror of the Zliten suicide bombing was unanimously denounced throughout Libya. Moreover, the pictures of the Al-Sidra “kamikazes”[4] were found deeply shocking. These images of young men, apparently from the African Sahel or the Horn of Africa, were published by IS and widely circulated on social networks. The photo of one of these “martyrs” created terrible grief for many families. It was a photo of a fifteen year-old teenager named Abd El-Mounaan Dweila, who had run away from his parents' home in Tripoli a few weeks earlier to join IS in Sirte. The widely publicized story of Dweila’s radicalization confirmed the existence of a generational gap, a new phenomenon in Libya. [5] While the boy's devout family had enrolled him in a Quranic school affiliated with a Sufi brotherhood, he was gradually radicalized through his contacts with a neighborhood imam, who turned him away from Sufism in favor of jihadism. 

The Zliten tragedy, coming only a few days after the attack involving this boy, resulted, for the first time since the fall of Gaddafi, in uniting all the warring factions in unanimous and unambiguous condemnation. The history of young Dweila also had the effect of alerting many parents to the dangerous forces of radicalization that their children were exposed to. 

A Puppet of the West

A new military intervention making short shrift of Libyan sovereignty—whether or not it would be in response to a future government of national union—is very likely to raise more problems than it seeks to resolve. Although a few Libyan voices are calling for foreign intervention, the vast majority of the people are against any foreign operation on their territory, whether conducted by the Western powers or by Arab countries. By banishing the prospect of a defeat of IS by strictly Libyan forces, a foreign intervention would discredit any government of national unity since it would be seen as a puppet of the West. It would also fuel the resentment felt by many Libyans. Although not particularly hostile to the West, they are nonetheless not unresponsive to arguments put forth by the most radical politicians of both Eastern and Western Libya, who spread various conspiracy theories, the most popular claiming that IS itself is a new way the West has found to interfere in the Arab world.

A new international military intervention in Libya will therefore not contribute to any lasting solution that responds to the political and social reasons for the presence of IS in that country. This must require first and foremost the rebuilding of a legitimate Libyan state, including as many of the local military and political forces as possible.

[This text has been published in French by Orient XXI and translated into English by Noël Burch. In case of any inconsistency between the texts, the French version shall prevail.] 


[1]Letter dated 18 November 2015 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011). http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2015/images/12/01/mt.report.on.libya-.eng.pdf.

[2] Dresden was leveled by the RAF at the end of WWII.

[3] Online videos in that language appeared calling upon viewers to join the ranks of IS.

[4] “Libya : ISIS broadcasts names and photos of those who carried out the attack on the oil-terminal at AL-SIDRA”, al-'alam al-youm, 4 January 2014.

[5] A. al-Rawwaf, “One of the kamikazes in the Libyan bombing was a fifteen year-old boy.” Iram, January 5, 2016.

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