While Syria and Iraq may have grabbed the headlines over the past few years, another country has been preying on the mind of some Western officials. In private, French, Italian, British and United States defence officials and diplomats have expressed their huge concern about Libya. Now that the likelihood of a military intervention has increased, 2016 may turn out to be the year of Libya.
Back in November 2013, former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan warned that the “international community cannot tolerate a state in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a source of violence, terrorism and killings.” Only a handful of nations listened to him.
In a May 2014 interview, I stated that the US, French and Algerian special forces had been allegedly conducting operations against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) since early that year.
In August 2014, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were on high alert after an alleged US tip-off that Libyan jihadists were planning to fly planes into buildings in these countries, in attacks similar to that of September 11.
Taking the threat seriously, Morocco mobilised 70,000 soldiers across the country and installed anti-aircraft batteries in Casablanca, Marrakesh and Tangier to shoot down any civilian plane that might have been taken by terrorists.
Algeria took similar measures. In 2014, it had reportedly conducted operations for almost two months inside Libya involving up to 5,000 soldiers to root out jihadists.
As the joint Egypt-United Arab Emirates air strikes in Libya showed in 2014, regional powers are not going to sit idly by as dark clouds gather nearby, which could mean that Libya becomes the most dangerous place, not only for North Africa but for Europe. It could even shift the focus from Iraq and Syria.
A new Syria?
Libya has the largest stockpile of loose weapons in the world – according to some reports, even larger than the British army’s arsenal – plus about 4,000 surface-to-air missiles and 6,400 barrels of uranium concentrate powder, known as “yellowcake”, that could pass into the hands of terror groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), AQIM or al Mourabitoun which controls large swaths of territory in the south.
While the worsening situation in Libya failed to trigger an international military intervention in 2015, the emergence of ISIL in Libya appears to have tipped the balance.
While Italy, for example, has said that it will not attack ISIL in Syria, it has indicated that it might attack in Libya, which could mean air strikes as well as special forces on the ground. Italy has now taken the leadover France when it comes to “fixing” Libya, which isn’t surprising when one considers Italy’s colonial past in Libya, its commercial interests there, and the fact that Rome has been repeatedly threatened by ISIL.
Another nation, Canada, is actually withdrawing its fighter jets from the coalition in Iraq and Syria, so that it is ready to take part in a military operation in Libya.
Britain is actually preparing to send up to 1,000 troops and special forces to Libya. This should not come as a surprise following the June terror attack in Tunisia, in which 30 British citizens died, because the attacker was an ISIL operative trained in Libya. At the time, David Cameron, the British prime minister, said that he was ready to launch “immediate” air strikes against terrorists in Libya.
Russia could also get involved in Libya after General Khalifa Haftarreached out to them for support.
The new Saudi-led coalition against ISIL could also see more action in Libya than Syria or Iraq because of both Egypt and the UAE’s interests there. Finally, both France and the US have recently been preparing public opinion for an imminent intervention.
Once initiated, the air strikes are likely to focus on ISIL’s stronghold in Sirte and possibly the two large ISIL training camps in Hun, 200 kilometres south of Sirte.
The appeal for ISIL
ISIL is believed to have between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters in Libya, but that number could rise quickly for two reasons: Firstly, some of the fighters leaving Syria could join ISIL in Libya; and, secondly, new recruits are expected to swell their ranks.
Libya is ISIL’s second largest “market” after Iraq and Syria and featured extensively in the September issue of ISIL’s magazine Dabiq. It has the potential to become a popular training ground for European recruits. In November 2015, two Frenchmenwere arrested in southern Tunisia – reportedly on their way to join an ISIL training camp.
A North African from Brussels, Paris or Amsterdam would have much more in common with someone from Libya rather than in Syria or Iraq, making it more appealing to recruits. And while entry to Syria is getting more difficult, Libya is now seen as a possible springboard to destabilise neighbouring Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
And while ISIL would be the main target in Libya, it is interesting that it was a recent AQIM video that called on Libyans to rise up against the invaders from Italy, France, the US and Britain.
Given the situation in Libya – a failed state with three governments, no real army, a plethora of militias and several seasoned terror groups – any international military intervention force will have its work cut out..