No less an authority than CIA Director John Brennan last Thursday called the ISIS group in Libya its “most developed and most dangerous” affiliate and noted that this group seeks to expand in Africa and attack in Europe. So, why should we care?
For one thing, Brennan’s warning contrasts sharply with the optimism of the State Department. Only a day earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Libya’s United Nations-backed government is “[coming] together,” and praised efforts to “minimize the implantation of [ISIS]” in Libya.
Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk also praised forces “loyal” to the U.N.-backed government for making “real progress” against ISIS.
Which is it?
Unfortunately, Brennan is right, and Kerry is wrong. The progress being touted by the Obama Administration against ISIS in Libya is ephemeral, while the real danger from that group is growing.
Secretary Kerry has warned against playing “counter-terrorism whack-a-mole” for lack of a comprehensive strategy, but that is exactly what the U.S. is doing.
Local militias aided by the U.S. in Libya are about to drive ISIS out of Sirte, an unimportant minor city on the central coast, and let it re-establish itself in a desert hinterland from which there are no plans or forces to dislodge it.
The U.S. is presenting the militas’ urban success as the silver bullet that will end the ISIS threat in North Africa.
But Sirte is intrinsically unimportant to ISIS. It is just a minor city that ISIS was able to seize and hold, and can abandon without excessive pain. In fact, ISIS has been preparing to withdraw from Sirte since April, and is already carving out a new safe haven in southwestern Libya.
The militias fighting ISIS in Sirte will not pursue it into the desert. Indeed, they aren’t really interested in the terrorist group.
They are leveraging their counter-ISIS efforts to obtain much-needed support from the U.S. and Europe to position themselves against one another. They hope to capitalize on their success in Sirte to gain recognition from the West, but also to gain territory and resources, particularly key oil infrastructure in central Libya.
Once ISIS is out of Sirte, they will likely begin maneuvering to control that key terrain. For its part, the U.N.-backed Libyan government has no forces of its own and is subject to the will of local militias.
Still, who cares if ISIS retains a base in the remote desert? We should.
The North African desert is crisscrossed by extensive trade, smuggling, and trafficking routes that connect across the African continent and matter far more than state borders. Southwest Libya actually contains more strategically significant terrain than Sirte because of these routes.
ISIS will tap in to these lucrative channels. It may also tap into militant networks that stretch throughout West Africa.
From the desert positions it is already planning to occupy, ISIS could deepen its current relationship with Boko Haram in Nigeria, or develop new relationships with the plethora of militant groups active in northern Mali.
At the same time, it would remain capable of destabilizing Libya, or double down on ongoing terror campaigns in Tunisia and Algeria.
U.S. and European leaders imagine that they are addressing ISIS’ strategic challenge by forming a “unity government” in Libya and negotiating with the state sponsors of the various constituent groups.
Secretary of State Kerry said that he is working with the Egyptians and the Emiratis to bring General Khalifa Haftar, our preferred counterterrorism partner, and his supporters into the U.N.-backed government.
But even if Haftar himself joined the government, it would not end the war.
Libyan militias represent popular forces mobilized to fight one another. They will not be controlled by an elite bargain negotiated by foreign countries.
The Libyan civil war, like the Syrian civil war, needs a real resolution, not a back-room deal worked out in European hotels.
In some ways, Secretary Kerry is also right—the U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS, and Al Qaeda, throughout the region.
However, a comprehensive strategy is exactly what we don’t have. We are whacking various moles and negotiating “settlements” that settle nothing while ISIS adapts and Al Qaeda grows.
Emily Estelle is an Al Qaeda analyst at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. She recently published a series of maps detailing the counter-ISIS campaign in Libya.