The West's military and political leaders are pondering a major new armed intervention as Da'ish's momentum builds
Signs are emerging that another major Western intervention in the Arab-African world is on the horizon. United States President Barack Obama is telling his National Security Council to consider all options to counter Da'ish (Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, ISIL) in Libya. US aircraft have already carried out an air raid on a Da'ish training camp at Sabratha, west of Tripoli, and are being readied at British and Italian air bases to carry out more, some possibly elsewhere in North Africa.
The spread into Libya of the Da'ish franchise is one of several existential threats to UN-led efforts to unite the feuding Tobruk- and Tripoli-based governments and other factions. Support for the new Government of National Accord (GNA) is the only strategy which Western governments can countenance to create a viable post-Moammar el Gadaffi state from an atomised, mess of rival tribal and ideological groups, and to eliminate Da'ish and criminal gangs from Europe's southern flank (AC Vol 57 No 2, A cure that could kill). Western governments want such a government to authorise broader military action in Libya.
Although the GNA's future is far from certain, Western governments need the new national administration to authorise broader military action. This is opposed by many local factions, including supporters of the government in Tobruk, notably General Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) has intensified operations in recent weeks, backed by Egypt and Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) acting President Agila Saleh Issa Gwaider, who was a signatory to establishing the GNA but is now a leading dissident.
Intelligence agencies have identified some 432 different militias within Libyan borders. Western Special Forces have been dispatched to gain a better understanding on the ground, as information about potential enemies and partners for any future action on the ground is thin. But Africa Confidential's soundings of senior Western military, intelligence and other government officials and of sources in the region suggests substantial differences over the pace and intensity of potential operations. Despite dramatic strikes such as the 19 February raid on Sabratha that killed Tunisian jihadist Noureddine Chouchane aka Sabir and some 50 other alleged Da'ish operatives (see Box, Special forces set up shop), military and civilian planning for a major intervention remains at an early stage.
Privately expressing views on migration and security issues that have more in common with measured critics such as the International Crisis Group or European Council on Foreign Relations than more vocal politicians, European generals are counselling caution to their political masters. France's President François Hollande, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron – said to be 'still very interested in Libya', despite his current European preoccupation – are driving Libya policy as the 'P-3' grouping, at the same time as they are deeply involved in efforts to stem the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
Senior officers are convinced that any coming campaign shouldn't be like those in Afghanistan or Iraq and that to avoid past mistakes, military intervention must be only a part of a much wider political and economic process to stabilise a region where operations have been very limited since Western forces withdrew after the 2011 intervention. European top brass fear that, with terrorism and migration at the top of EU member states' agendas, political leaders will again be tempted towards over-optimistic, knee-jerk calls for action, especially given what strategists call the risk of 'strategic shock', such as another major terrorist incident, coming from North Africa.
With European leaders veering towards action, Italy is taking a lead, reflecting its proximity to North Africa's trouble spots and to migration pressure. Initially sceptical European diplomats and military planners say Renzi's government has shown unusual international leadership, which is reflected in its presence in key EU institutions, where Federica Mogherini is European Commission Vice President and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (AC Vol 56 No 20, EU ups security demands). Another key Italian policy player is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appointed last November, Filippo Grandi.
The Italian military is enthusiastically involved in efforts to stabilise Libya and take a more muscular approach to people-smuggling. It is seen as the most bullish member of the P-3 and heads the Libyan International Assistance Mission (LIAM), which is researching military options alongside the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Other highly-placed Italians include UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler's senior security adviser, Lieutenant-General Paolo Serra (previously UN commander in Lebanon), and Admiral Enrico Credendino, who leads the European Union Naval Force (Eunavfor Med).
To expand operations, LIAM and UNSMIL require GNA support. Obtaining it won't be easy. 'Even if you bring 80% of the militias and a majority of political leaders on board, that still leaves a lot of spoilers,' a senior Western defence analyst observed.
It is uncertain how key elements will be brought into the new configuration, including Haftar's LNA, which is loyal to the Tobruk government and strongly opposed to aligning with the more Islamist, Tripoli-based General National Congress and El Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) factions in the GNA (AC Vol 56 No 5, More war, more talks). More problematic still are Ibrahim el Jathran's Petroleum Facilities Guards, who will want to keep control over vital oil infrastructure contested with Da'ish, and the hundreds of localised militias, who live off the rent of conflict.
While the Sabratha raid's Da'ish targets were enemies of most Libyan factions and Libyan authorities were quick to debrief US intelligence on the results, GNA Premier Faiez el Serraj criticised 'a flagrant violation of the Libyan State's sovereignty'. Opposition to any form of intervention runs deep, as it did when opposition to 'foreign meddling' derailed British, French and other efforts to support the post-Gadaffi transition in 2011-13. Western civilian and military planners are well aware that this could limit their scope for involvement, even if Libya is in apparent meltdown. LIAM's legitimacy may reside in a letter of support signed by some 100 Tobruk House of Representatives (HoR) members, rather than in wider national approbation.
Opposition to intervention may also limit cooperation with Algeria, which is seen as one of two regional military powers, with Egypt, that might play a significant role. Algeria's generals and political elite traditionally oppose foreign intervention. Optimistic Western diplomats see signs of Algiers taking a greater regional role under Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, re-engaging with the Mali peace process and agreeing to host the 40-country African Mechanism for Police Cooperation (Afripol). This initiative was pushed by Algeria's head of the police, the Direction générale de la sûreté nationale, Major General Abdelghani Hamel.
Yet despite the pressure building on its eastern border and the presence of jihadists led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Libya, Algiers remains publicly opposed to intervention. On 3 March, Lamamra insisted, 'Algeria will not be carried along in a military adventure in Libya or elsewhere' (AC Vol 56 No 15, The franchise war between Al Qaida and Da’ish & Vol 56 No 24, Attack targets peace deal). Algerian reports spoke of a Western build-up, including the return to the Mediterranean (from the Gulf) of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, officially for a naval exercise with a new friend (and target for Hollande's defence sales drive), Egypt.
Cairo could provide useful support in Libya, although there is discomfort – more in London and Washington than in Paris – that the authoritarian President Abdel Fatah el Sisi might make a difficult ally. French advisors are said to be helping his ally Haftar. Across African and other institutions, there is grumbling about Egyptian 'grandstanding', as officials follow El Sisi's orders to increase the country's international presence. In Libya, Egypt's key local ally, Haftar, is widely mistrusted, not least for his role under Colonel Gadaffi. Gulf partners are also being sounded out.
Although preoccupied with Yemen, Syria and its regional struggle with Iran, Saudi Arabia has put the crisis in Libya high on its agenda in talks with partners, a European diplomat reported. Meanwhile, an early March visit to Algiers by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov led to speculation
that Moscow was seeking to make 'mischief' in Libya, building on President Vladimir Putin's success in changing the direction of the Syrian conflict.
The US military is planning for a wider intervention, as was implied when the generals heading the US Central Command (Centcom), Lloyd James Austin III, Africa Command (Africom), David Rodriguez, and Special Operations Command (Socom), Joseph Leonard Votel, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 8 March. The US European Command (Eucom) is also involved in Libya-Mediterranean thinking, military sources said. Rodriguez's assessment is that the GNA faces challenges from 'lack of institutions… fractured society, and multiple competing militias' and that 'even with the support of the international community, the GNA will likely struggle for the foreseeable future to establish its authority and secure Libya's territory, borders, resources, and people'. That view is widely shared. Veteran Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked if Libya was now a failed state. 'Yes Sir,' replied Rodriguez.
European missions to the region are stacking up. The EU's integrated Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM Libya) has been extended by at least six months, until 21 August, with its mandate expanded in mid-February to assist in planning 'possible future civilian capacity-building and assistance crisis management mission in the field of security sector reform', working with UNSMIL. Critics say EUBAM has been toothless since launched in May 2013 but has the potential to be ramped up; its current budget is not huge: €4.475 million (US$4.97 mn.). Reflecting the depth of the security crisis, UNSMIL, like many Libya-focused operations and government locations, is currently located in Tunis.
Operations linked to the migration crisis also have a Libya focus, including the EUNavFor Med mission to interdict smugglers, commanded by Credendino, with the second phase launched last October. Similarly, anti-terrorist initiatives – such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's Naples-based Operation Active Endeavour could be directed towards Libya.
The UNSMIL team in Tunis faces what European government analysts call 'intractable problems of security', while differences of policy among the 28 EU partners add to the difficulties of focusing Mediterranean missions. UNSMIL and LIAM are expected to use the HoR letter as endorsement for more robust operations. Their first task will be to shore up the GNA – when it can finally get back to Tripoli, which is by no means a done deal. Even then, reining in the militias, driving back ISIL and rebuilding Libya promise to be a very protracted task. That will need long-term commitment from all the key local and international parties. As far as the Unsmil-LIAM partners are concerned, there is no Plan B to fall back on, so the GNA will have to be made to work.
Special forces set up shop
With conventional diplomatic activity limited on the ground, foreign Special Forces troops have been gathering intelligence and setting up communication links. British SF soldiers have a mission with the powerful Misurata militia, potential king-makers in the struggles to come. They also have representation with the 'moderate Islamist' Fajr Libya in Tripoli. The United States Special Operations Command Africa's Brigadier General Donald Bolduc has confirmed US forces are working with a small Libyan SF unit, loyal to the Tobruk HoR, which was established after Colonel Moammar el Gadaffi's fall in 2011.
Tension has been rising and the unprecedented attempt by Da'ish ('Islamic State') on 7 March to capture the Tunisian town of Ben Gardane, close to the Libyan border, is widely seen as a jihadist riposte to the 19 February raid on Sabratha by two US F15 fighter-bombers along with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones).
The principal target of the Sabratha attacks was Noureddine Chouchane, born in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring protests first broke out (AC Vol 57 No 4, One country for old men). He was believed to have planned the attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and on holidaymakers in Sousse last year, which torpedoed Tunisia's tourism industry. Chouchane moved to Libya as a member of Ansar el Sharia (Supporters of Sharia), the leading jihadist franchise until Da'ish arrived.
A February 2015 United Nations Panel of Experts report observed that, outside the jihadists' eastern heartland, the Ansar had built up a presence in Sirte, Sabratha and Awbari. A year later, Da'ish seems to dominate these places. Most of its foot soldiers are North African, despite a smattering of Iraqi and other Middle Eastern commanders; in a reflection of its emergence in Iraq, where officers of the former Saddam Hussein regime provided vital expertise to the new militia, former members of the Gadaffi's Libyan regime have signed up. Da'ish's strategic stronghold is Sirte, Gadaffi's home region, and in the Gadaffiya tribal heartland.
This provides an obvious target for a Western air campaign. The Pentagon had suggested 30-40 targets in four regions of Libya to President Barack Obama and the National Security Council on 22 February, The New York Times reported on 8 March. It said the plan was not being actively considered while international efforts to create a Government of National Accord (GNA) continued and 'limited' air-strikes remained an option against Da'ish.
The breadth and depth of targeting options prepared by the US Africa Command and Joint Special Operations Command surprised civilian participants. Senior US and European officers argue that any effective intervention cannot be limited in its military scope or political ambitions, which would include genuine post-conflict reconstruction.
The United States has increased surveillance and also inserted Special Forces soldiers in Libya. As in other theatres, it has authorised strike missions against 'high-value' jihadist targets, of the sort that became very familiar, and with very mixed results, in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. As well as the Sabratha attack, the strategic hub of Ajdabiya was hit in June and the Islamist redoubt of Dirna in November, when senior Iraqi Da'ish cadre Abu Nabil al Anbari aka Wissam Abdel Zubaidi was killed (AC Vol 56 No 6, A new flag in North Africa). Comments by Bolduc that a 'Coalition coordination centre' had been established in Rome led to denials by Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti, in deference, it appears, to the need for the GNA to be established.
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