BY: KATHERINE GAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR
Nearly five years after the revolution that deposed Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya remains a fragile state. The country is embroiled in a civil war with immense civilian casualties and deep divisions that threaten a complete state collapse. While the conflict has pitted several actors, including rival governments and militant groups, against one another, one organization has risen amongst the chaos: ISIS. This group was able to take advantage of the instability ravaging the nation and fill the political vacuum. However, ISIS does not have complete control of Libya, warranting an exigent response from the United States and its allies to quickly contain the group and stop its expansion.
There are several reasons that ISIS chose to expand into Libya. The nation served as a back up plan in case of defeat in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the country is a strategic base for ISIS to expand into sub-Saharan Africa, strengthening in numbers. Furthermore, ISIS seeks to diminish the borders between Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, beginning with connections of towns in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. In addition, Libya poses a severe security threat to Europe, particularly France and Italy. This is because the vulnerability of the country has facilitated the travel of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe. Accordingly, by taking control over Libya, ISIS hopes to be closer to European countries and carry out attacks. These actions only further ISIS’s self-announced goals of expanding its caliphate throughout the Middle East, Africa, and eventually the rest of the world.
It is the inherent nature of a destructive, hopeless Libya that has allowed ISIS to thrive. Rival governments view fighting one another as more important than defeating the terrorist group. Moreover, the civil war means that the country has transformed into a battle ground in which weapons are readily available. This has motivated the flow of ISIS insurgents from Syria and Iraq into Libya, increasing the chance of a rapid takeover. Most prominently, the strife of the war has allowed ISIS to recruit many youth in Libya, by offering hope and a better future. Specifically, the group offers monthly salaries of $1,000 US dollars, which is preferable to the average monthly Tunisian salary of $246 US dollars. Coupled with extremist propaganda, these efforts have strengthened ISIS’s numbers in Libya to 6,000 fighters. In addition, efforts have been made by the United Nations to create a unity government and temporarily settle the conflict. However, neither side is willing to reach an agreement. As a preemptive response, ISIS has blown up oil tanks and facilities, a key source of revenue for the government, in an attempt to prevent a unity government from being able to ever survive and function. Moreover, to further destabilize Libya, ISIS has launched attacks against remaining government officials, hoping to wipe out possible leaders. It is clear that ISIS flourishes in an unstable Libya, necessitating action to prevent its growth.
Destroying or even diminishing the terrorist’s group’s reign in Libya requires action from the nation itself. Implementing airstrikes or launching ground troops before the region is stable guarantees failure and only allows ISIS to grow stronger. In addition, the political vacuum and the current government’s lack of legitimacy in Libya have allowed ISIS to set a foundation for long term expansion. Thus, it is clear that efforts should be made to resolve political tensions and bring the rival governments together. While imposing a national unity government onto Libya seems like the obvious solution, it is also the most difficult and least desirable, politically, for Western nations. This is shown in the militaristic approach the United States has outlined in defeating ISIS in Libya.
Unfortunately, unilateral action may ensure failure, as anti-American sentiments due to airstrikes and past intervention are clearly entrenched throughout the country. However, as each day passes, ISIS gains more territory and strengthens its hold. Due to the urgency of the political and economic fractures in Libya that have facilitated ISIS’s growth, it is vital for Western nations to aid in improving counterterrorism efforts and reforming political institutions. By starting from the local level and giving conditional aid to regional command centers, Western nations will be able to minimize their interference as well as emphasize the need for integration in both the government and military. In addition, while Syria and Iraq are the focus of military operations for the United States and other world leaders, it is vital to ramp up a response in Libya as well, before ISIS’s presence overtakes the nation. Cooperation, whether between the United States and its European allies, or opposing sides in the Libyan civil war, is imperative and the only chance at thwarting ISIS’ proliferation and enabling peace in the region.