Escalation in Libya

Escalation in Libya

A man walks past a poster in Tahrir Square, Baghdad commemorating Shi’ite fighters killed in battles with Islamic State militants. Photo: Ahmed Saad/Reuters

A man walks past a poster in Tahrir Square, Baghdad commemorating Shi’ite fighters killed in battles with Islamic State militants. Photo: Ahmed Saad/Reuters

I doubt many Libyans were surprised or impressed by the news that a jihadist convoy, flying the IS flag, drove into the western coastal town of Nawfaliya (close to Sirte). It has long been known that an important jihadist training camp was set up nearby.

Another piece of news, however, might have pricked many ears. President Barack Obama has asked the US Congress for authorisation for the use of force against IS, force that might include boots on the ground; authorisation valid for a three-year period.

The Nawfaliya convoy seems to have included many foreign fighters. Again, something that in itself would not surprise Libyans. Foreign passports – Algerian, Tunisian, Sudanese… – keep turning up on the dead jihadists in Benghazi, the casualties of the war being waged on them by General Khalifa Haftar. Other testimony suggests the same for the jihadists in western Libya, including for the camps on the coast, in the vicinity of Sabratha, and some 200 kilometres into the interior.

In Malta, plenty of attention has been given to the possibility that jihadists might cross over from Libya.

The truth seems to be, however, that the direction of migration is the opposite: fighters are flowing into Libya, not out. Some come from Europe; many from other parts of the Arab world. The previous trend, of migration to the Middle East, is being reversed.

In this context, the consequences of US military action on IS will be critical for Libya. If any action is limited to Syria and Iraq, the result of heavy defeats for IS could be a return of jihadists to their homelands, for operations there, as happened after reversals in Afghanistan (and, earlier, after the end of the 1980s war against the Soviet Union).

However, it’s also possible that, rather than disperse, the jihadists would all flow to one place that gives them hope and offers a big prize: Libya. Experience in fighting in various countries has already given jihadists of different nationalities a cross-border solidarity, not to mention training in fighting as international units.

Libya might also give them the opportunity to do the two things they do best: attract publicity and engage in cross-border operations, in this case, in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.

The publicity would be partly a result of the nature of Libya’s terrain. It’s a massive country with a small population. Towns can be considered neighbouring while being 100 kilometres apart.

That’s a recipe for film footage showing dramatic territorial conquests.

We saw this in 2011 during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, where the capture of a town was accompanied by images of large tracts of territory being marked under rebel control.

The rebel advances seemed at first unstoppable and proceeding at lightning speed. We then saw that the impression was mistaken: Gaddafi’s forces could recapture territory with similar speed.

The conflict itself, despite the wild swings of fortune, was itself bogged down until more and more Western ‘military advisers’ became involved.

Fighters are flowing into Libya, not out

IS will also work hard at gaining publicity on its own steam, though. Several observers have now remarked that just as armoured tanks are the enduring image of WWII, helicopter gunships of the Vietnam war and suicide bombings of the 9/11 wars, the horrific filmed execution will be the enduring image of the conflict with IS and its clones.

The nature of the executions is part of a thought-out strategy. There has been a gradual, deliberate escalation in the scale of barbarity. Each escalation appears to have been timed carefully – such as the attempt to provoke Jordan’s monarchy into overstretching itself (even if the immediate result of the immolation of a Jordanian pilot has been to rally even King Abdullah’s opponents around the national flag).

We must not think that we have reached the limit of the savagery IS can be capable of.

From Libya, IS can eye prizes in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. The relative success of the Tunisian Jasmine revolution is, in part, due to the emigration of many Tunisian jihadists to fight elsewhere. But the history of previous North African jihadist emigrations shows every reason to think that the jihadists will one day return.

Although Tunisia is building up a democracy, the path is precarious. The south is in particular economic difficulty. Smugglers and Islamists have been able to plant roots.

The economic strategy of the new government seems little different from what was tried by its Islamist predecessor and the pre-2011 Ben Ali government. Under the latter, the strategy generated statistically impressive growth but with very uneven development and multiplier effect. The Islamists didn’t even manage that much.

Meanwhile, in southern Algeria there are rumblings of renewed protests against the central government. In late 2010, the regime had managed to quell protests that had begun around the same time as the Tunisian ones and before the Libyan revolution had begun in earnest. This time round, the Algerian regime faces the additional difficulty of an unstable Libya.

There is even stronger reason for preoccupation about Egypt. There, the Muslim Brotherhood has entered one of the most violent phases of its almost 90-year history. Public buildings and assets are regularly burned and destroyed; many police and army officers have been brutally and ostentatiously murdered.

The State’s reaction has been as brutal. But it has also been an overreaction. There have been cases of peaceful (and non-Islamist) demonstrators being killed. Ordinary Egyptians, unaccustomed to thinking of their society as intrinsically violent, are beginning to wonder about what’s happening to the world they thought they knew.

In a situation where the State faces a looming fiscal crisis, one has to wonder how long the centre can hold. If jihadists begin to use Libya as platform for launching operations in Egypt, there is an additional question.

The Egyptian army is a redoubtable enemy, if only because of its size. But will its leaders overreact by chasing jihadists deep into Libyan territory? How would Libyans react then?

From a purely strategic perspective, it’s difficult to see how IS can win the war it has started. The more it grows, the more reason it gives its many enemies to forget their differences and unite. An enemy involving an alliance of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Russia and the US (among others) should be impossible to defeat.

But, before a strategic defeat becomes a comprehensive military one, there will be plenty of opportunities for IS to score tactical victories because of its enemies’ miscalculations and rivalries.

Some military historians doubt whether Germany, in the two world wars, could have ever defeated the powerful allies arrayed against it, despite the close calls in particular battles. But it took the tragic ruin of two European generations to win.

From a long historical perspective, those wars were short interludes. For the people who suffered them, they were lifetime nightmares.

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