With the UN yet to cobble up a national unity government in the civil war-torn Northern African state, local militia groups vying for power, and the Islamic State fast gaining its  foothold, West is facing a major challenge. If it fails to act, the terror group will soon start launching attacks in Europe. And if it strikes without first unifying the warring local militant groups against their common enemy, that would push Libya deeper into chaos 

The modern state, despite its technological advantages, has failed to counter terror networks that have mushroomed in the past two decades of the 21st century. This has even raised questions about its viability.

members of the Islamic State militant group parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte
Members of the Islamic State militant group parading in a street in Libya’s coastal city of Sirte

While many believe that the state itself is the major actor responsible for bringing forth these terror organizations, it cannot be gainsaid that groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are trying to build a ‘state’ of their own. The fight, it can be said, is largely constructed around the question of capturing the hub of political power i.e. the state or creating one.

In this context, Libya’s descend into chaos after the NATO operation and the consequent growth of militant groups vying for political power testify what I have tried to say here.

Although the IS has joined the power tussle only recently, it is already trying to turn the city of Sirte into its ‘capital’ much like the ones it has already established in the Iraqi city of Mosul and Syria’s eastern city of Al-Raqqah. The necessity of having a ‘capital’ has a symbolic significance and allows these organizations to ‘institutionalize’ themselves.

While it is a moot question as to who is responsible for the growth of these terror networks, various military coalitions have consistently failed to destroy them.  The Libyan government ‘recognized’ by the West enjoys no control over the capital Tripoli. Numerous regional and international terrorist groups together with local militants have established full control over entire governorates. Attempts by the U.N. last year to form a national unity government in Libya have so far failed.

On the contrary, IS are reported to be establishing their foothold in Libya at a much faster pace than anywhere else thanks to the availability of enough weapons, oil and, most importantly, human resources from across the African continent.

While Libya’s oil fields do not represent a huge economic prize for IS because of their huge size and mechanical complexity, disrupting the production of oil has had a significant impact on the country’s stability. The fields within IS’ reach, says one European diplomat, “are like a lever they can use against the [unity government] negotiations [when they choose to]”.

But this ‘fast growth’ of IS does not owe to these factors alone. Careful planning in terms of re-locating these ‘assets’ is also reported to have been undertaken by vested interests. As Financial Times claimed in one of its reports, IS’ relocation to Libya is part of a plan that was set in motion as early as 2014.

Citing two ‘western intelligence officials’, the report claims that around 300 Libyan nationals who had fought for IS in Syria were sent back to North Africa as part of the initial phase of the operation. They were led by one of the group’s top commanders, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, who is an Iraqi national. He was also given a huge amount of money to “cement alliances and establish operations”, one of the intelligence officials says in the report.

The report has appeared at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama admitted that Libya operation was one of the worst mistakes. It must be pointed out that the West suffers from extremely limited capabilities in influencing the situation on the ground in Libya. A massive air campaign against IS in Libya has failed to materialize weeks after Western politicians discussed it. It is clear that Obama does not want the US to get stuck in yet another war. He thinks the responsibility for the Libyan crisis rests on European shoulders.

This inaction continues to prevail due partly to the ‘poor performance’ of the West against IS in Syria and Iraq. The West lacks the resolve to commit to yet another chaotic situation that, ironically enough, very much owes its existence to their own disruptive actions. And the situation is likely to worsen if no action is taken.

The IS are approaching Africa, the world’s poorest continent. Africa’s economic condition, prevailing political instability and, above all, availability of enough human resources, especially the youth, makes it the most productive breeding place for groups like IS. A number of African countries are vulnerable. Mali and Niger are already in trouble. Tunisia has a huge terrorism problem and countries like Algeria are suffering from extreme down-trend in revenues due to low oil prices. As such, what this inaction would lead to is not hard to imagine.

The goal to fight IS in Libya is further aggravated by the reluctance of Libya’s warring parties to seek compromise. Without a comprehensive amount of support on the ground, one can hardly dream of any military success. In the absence of a coherent strategy, the West has focused on encouraging certain Libyan forces to fight IS on their own. Such a strategy would lead to chaos and only help groups like IS to strengthen their positions in the territories they control. Would it then mean a de facto break-up of Libya into ‘petty kingdoms’?  Who will act then and to what end?

The West cannot afford to sit idle for too long and allow IS to use Libya as the base for launching attacks in Europe.  On the other hand, a Western military intervention in Libya in itself would prove to be yet another disaster if done without first knitting the local warring factions into a sort of political unity. The challenge for the West is, therefore, big enough. First, it has to convince itself of the need to strike before convincing Libya’s militant factions currently fighting among themselves.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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