February 28, 2017
Ignoring History: America's Losing Strategy in Libya
ISIS is not defeated in Libya, and American security remains at risk. Libya is missing from the policy discussion even as the Trump administration reconsiders America’s strategy in multiple theaters. It became an invisible conflict again after the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) lost control of its former stronghold, Sirte, in December 2016. U.S. airstrikes on ISIS training camps in January 2017 degraded the group, but should remind us that all is not well. Libya remains an important theater of war against ISIS.
Nor can the U.S. hope to contain Libya’s problems in Libya. America’s interests there transcend al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Salafi-jihadi groups. The Libyan conflict has serious implications for the U.S. and its allies in Europe. The war itself exacerbates the migrant crisis that is destabilizing Europe. Russia is also engaging in Libya as part of a larger plan to roll back the influence of the U.S. and NATO in the Mediterranean. Libya is part of Russia’s efforts to woo Egyptian President Sisi away from the U.S. and the Gulf states. It is an important theater of global geopolitics as well as of counter-terror operations.
The current U.S. strategy will fail in Libya, as it has repeatedly in places such as Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Further, ISIS is on track to resurge alongside al Qaeda.
The U.S. must develop a new strategy in Libya that prioritizes resolving the civil war. We should begin by working with our allies to isolate the country from the regional and global power competitions that are worsening the conflict within Libya. The U.S. should also support changes to the UN-backed unity government that promote inclusivity and reward stakeholders who are willing to compromise. We must keep pressure on ISIS while taking care to support the formation of legitimate armed forces that do not pursue polarizing political objectives or operate within al Qaeda’s orbit.
It is not too late for U.S. policy in Libya to succeed. ISIS is on its back foot, and many Libyan stakeholders are looking for paths to resolution. We must seize this opportunity to support a sustainable solution to the Libyan conflict so that recent success in Libya will stand the test of time. We otherwise risk watching Libya return to chaos and allowing ISIS and al Qaeda (and possibly Russia) to secure an enduring safe haven on Europe’s doorstep.
We have tried to neutralize the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda in Libya by supporting local proxies and targeting leadership, an approach that has failed time and again in other theaters. Conditions are set for this strategy to fail in Libya, too. The U.S. has also pursued a strategy of containing ISIS in Libya that cannot work in a conflict involving regional systems and global players. American interests in Libya go beyond preventing ISIS and al Qaeda from holding cities or planning external operations. Developments in Libya are part of a geopolitical struggle with serious implications for NATO and the stability of Europe.
The U.S. has evolved a preferred approach to fighting ISIS and al Qaeda—give limited support to local proxy forces to chase the groups out of safe-havens while conducting direct-action operations against key leaders plotting attacks against the U.S. We’ve used this approach in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. It hasn’t worked anywhere, but new poster-children succeed each failed effort.
Libya is the most recent demonstration of the inefficacy of using local proxies to fight our wars. Limited U.S. assistance helped Libyan armed groups drive ISIS out of the safe-haven it had established in the small central-coastal town of  We must learn from this failure to forge a new approach to the problem of protecting ourselves from the growing threat of Salafi-jihadi military organizations.. American officials were quick to declare the success of the strategy, but its failure is already clear.
ISIS seized Sirte and declared its rule there in May 2015. The U.S. and its Western partners helped cobble together enough local forces to expel it from the coastal city in late 2016. But ISIS today is only degraded, not defeated, in Libya. The group sacrificed some, but not all, of its forces to the defense of Sirte. It began to reconstitute its fighting forces rapidly after that defeat. U.S. airstrikes on ISIS training camps on January 18 disrupted that effort, but only temporarily. ISIS has gone to ground for the moment, but it is far from gone.
ISIS will remain quiet in the near term as a matter of sound strategy. It is deliberately avoiding direct confrontation with Libyan forces, which have little interest in chasing ISIS militants into the desert, while pursuing a campaign to disrupt water and power access and prolong civil conflict. ISIS is also operating in prime terrain to rebuild its capabilities over time, sheltered by Libya’s security vacuum. Its current safe havens give it access to smuggling networks and foreign fighter flows through southern Libya, a long-established and secure Salafi-jihadi safe haven. ISIS also has access to foreign fighter flows across the Tunisian border. Most important for ISIS’s reconstitution, the group retains strategic and operational planning capabilities from leadership within Libya and from ISIS’s strategists in Iraq and Syria.
The current counter-ISIS campaign in Libya requires local proxies to place U.S. objectives ahead of their own. The U.S. identified and backed partner forces that shared our objective of driving ISIS out of Sirte. Defeating ISIS was the only goal the U.S. cared about, but it is only an obstacle on the path to more important goals in the minds of our local partners. Their chief aims involve securing their political and economic interests in a war-torn and chaotic land. U.S.-backed forces attacked the ISIS force that threatened them most directly̶—achieving the U.S. objective of recapturing Sirte along the way—but left other elements of ISIS, and al Qaeda’s entire network in Libya, untouched. The U.S.-backed forces then, like their counterparts in other theaters, returned to Libya’s unresolved power struggle, which now includes jockeying for control of newly- liberated Sirte city. Libya’s political and economic chaos ensures that no actor has the resources or the secure position required to continue counter-ISIS operations. ISIS must now only wait for the inevitable opportunity to reconstitute and re-emerge.
Libyan factions may resume fighting among themselves, resetting the conditions that allowed ISIS to establish a foothold in Libya in 2014. The Libyan National Army (LNA) is the dominant fighting force in eastern Libya and has played a key role in countering ISIS in . One of its officers has recently signaled its intention to seize a central Libyan held by rival militias. These militias, from the western Libyan city of Misrata, played a key role in the retaking of Sirte and are the dominant force in Libya’s south and west. LNA airstrikes on the Misratan-held base have gone unanswered so far. An LNA attempt to seize the base, however, would force Misratan forces to defend their position, rather than keep pressure on ISIS. LNA officials have also threatened war on Tripoli, an unlikely but extremely dangerous possibility.
A regional political process championed by Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia may yet avoid these outcomes in the near term by shepherding LNA commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his allies toward a political deal with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). This process will likely be rendered moot, however. The GNA, currently the only Libyan body that the U.S. will engage, lacks credibility. Even its staunchest supporters acknowledge the need for reform. At the same time, Haftar refuses to engage with many moderate Islamist actors, including Misratan powerbrokers, who form a key political bloc in western Libya. This process also excludes hardline Islamist groups that wield significant military power on the ground and are making moves to unseat the GNA in Tripoli. The U.S.-backed anti-ISIS coalition, which had supported the GNA, is fracturing as turf wars between rival militias escalate in northwestern Libya. The return of open warfare between rival factions would hammer the final nail into the GNA’s coffin, burying the current U.S. counterterrorism partner in Libya with it. Internecine conflict would also give ISIS the time and space required to begin reversing the losses it has suffered in the past six months.
A resurgent civil war is not only a boon for ISIS. It would also strengthen al Qaeda in Libya. Al Qaeda-linked groups have infiltrated elements of Libya’s Islamist movement, which faces an existential threat from the increasingly powerful, anti-Islamist Haftar. An intensified civil war would drive moderate Islamist groups to cooperate with or support Salafi-jihadi militias, including al Qaeda associates, against the LNA. Haftar’s rise is a rallying cry for al Qaeda’s jihad in Libya.
The case of Haftar requires some consideration. He seems, at first glance, an ideal partner—an anti-Islamist commander with a large military force at his disposal willing and eager to fight Islamist groups. He would be a good partner if there were any prospect that he could defeat all of those groups and establish a legitimate government over all of Libya. There is, however, no such prospect. Haftar is a deeply polarizing figure in Libya and will not attract enough Libyans to his banner to end the conflict. His efforts in the meantime focus on his goals rather than ours. The U.S. needs Haftar and people like him to fight ISIS and al Qaeda, but those are far from his biggest problems. The Misratan militias and Islamist forces in Tripoli hold the terrain that matters most to him, so that is where he directs his energy and his forces. He thus ignores the threats that the U.S. cares most about while pursuing straightforward military defeat of all Islamists—an effort doomed to failure, but one that drives them steadily toward al Qaeda and ISIS for support.
Our strategic failure in Libya goes beyond choosing bad proxies. We are applying a containment strategy that does not address the nature and scale of the problem. The U.S. has invested minimal resources in resolving Libya’s civil war, which is the root cause of ISIS and al Qaeda’s expansion in Libya. We have instead pursued a limited counter-ISIS strategy within Libya, alongside security assistance to shore up the defenses of Egypt, Niger, and especially Tunisia. This strategy fails to account for entrenched cross-border systems that inevitably facilitate the movement of foreign fighters and weapons. ISIS and al Qaeda are actively supporting and directing regional operations from their safe havens in Libya, moreover, that aim to destabilize regional states and threaten U.S. partners and interests throughout Africa. ISIS uses its Libyan safe havens to support attack cells and recruiting networks in Tunisia, Algeria, and possibly Morocco. Libya is a potent threat to Egypt, especially if declining security in Libya requires Egypt to rededicate limited security forces already taxed in the Sinai to securing its western border. Finally, both ISIS and al Qaeda in Libya sit on a key nexus of a human network that reaches southward into West Africa. This network could facilitate ISIS’s expansion into the Sahel. It may also facilitate coordination between Libya-based ISIS or al Qaeda leadership and an evolving Boko Haram faction, which seeks to expand its operations throughout the region.
A containment strategy is also doomed to fail when nation states- including U.S. allies and partners- exacerbate the crisis in Libya by providing financial, materiel, and even direct military support to warring factions. The UAE, Egypt, and others are lined up on one side of the Libyan civil war, opposite Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan. These states’ efforts to shape the Libyan state formation process for their own geopolitical ends adds entropy to the system that drives continued conflict.
ISIS and al Qaeda are not the only U.S. adversaries operating in the Libyan theater, moreover. Libya is also a front for Russia to challenge the influence of the U.S. and its allies. Russia is duplicating the strategy it has deployed successfully in Syria to secure a stronghold in Libya by backing a military leader, in this case Haftar. It positions itself as a key mediator and counterterrorism partner in order to secure strategic victories, including the re-establishment of a military footprint on the southern Mediterranean. Russia also seeks to revive defunct economic interests in Libya that include arms deals, construction contracts, and investment in Libya’s oil sector.
Russia’s support for the LNA is deepening. What began as limited advisory and refitting support now includes a new arms deals and the rumored training of LNA troops by Russian forces in Syria. Russia’s involvement in Libya advances its regional position by deepening ties with Egypt, the LNA’s primary backer, which Russia aims to peel away from the American sphere of influence. Russia’s support for the LNA also bolsters ties to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with which Russia seeks to moderate tensions caused by the Russo-Iranian alliance in Syria. NATO’s involvement in Libya is increasing, too, following the GNA’s request for military training. Russia is more likely to achieve its objectives, however. The LNA’s military power is growing, thanks in part to Russian support, while the GNA lacks its own military forces and faces an imminent challenge for control of Tripoli.
The U.S. should take the following near-term steps to secure U.S. interests in Libya:
- Work to extricate Libya from a regional or global power competition that drives conflict within the country. The U.S. can do so by engaging with regional partners- including the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey- to reduce their support for armed factions and build support for an inclusive political process. The U.S. must also engage with European partners on issues, including counter-migration policy and the training of Libyan security forces, in order to ensure that Russia does take control of these processes.
- Support changes to the UN-backed GNA without transferring all American support to Haftar. The GNA was co-opted by the Misratan faction, discouraging other powerbrokers from participating in the UN framework. The U.S. should push for a renewed political process that includes all acceptable Libyan stakeholders. These stakeholders include the Misratan faction, moderate Islamist actors, and political leaders within Haftar’s bloc that have demonstrated willingness to compromise. Representatives from marginalized populations and regions, including the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya, must be included. The U.S. should also provide advisory support to any consensus governance structures that emerge so that these structures can begin to address popular grievances and achieve legitimacy.
- Work with Libyan partners to maintain pressure on ISIS and peel support away from al Qaeda-linked groups. This process must take care to support the formation of legitimate and representative armed forces that are not co-opted by a particular faction, especially those within the al Qaeda orbit.
We have fallen into this trap before. Continuing the current counter-terrorism strategy virtually guarantees that both ISIS and al Qaeda will regain strength while the proxies on which America relies exhaust themselves fighting each other. The U.S. needs a new approach to its entire counter-terrorism policy, and Libya is a good place to start.
Cristina Martin Ristori and Liz Navin contributed significant research to this report and map.
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