While the American-led campaign against the Islamic State has focused on Syria and Iraq, the terror group’s burgeoning spread into North Africa is prompting increased unease among European and Arab powers wary of the extremists’ growing hold on territory in the political vacuum in Libya.
With hundreds of thousands of Libyans fleeing across the Mediterranean during recent years because of the chaos and lack of security in their homeland, Italy’s foreign minster warned on Monday that the war-torn nation risks turning into “another Somalia.”
Italy joined other European nations and the Obama administration over the weekend in condemning the Islamic State’s rise in Libya, while a group of Arab powers are weighing whether to open a campaign of airstrikes targeting the group across several Libyan cities and towns.
The Arab League, whose most powerful members include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, is slated to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to consider a request by the internationally recognized government for Arab air forces to pound territory held by Libyan affiliates of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
The Libyan government made the plea Saturday, after the main Islamic State operation in northern Libya crushed a revolt that had been staged by a rival Salafist group in the Mediterranean port city of Sirte.
The city, which has been under Islamic State control since June, is roughly 300 miles east of Tripoli and just north of a range of potentially lucrative — but presently nonproducing — Libyan oil fields. It’s the hometown of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and a fount of extremist activity since the U.S.-backed ouster of Gadhafi in 2011.
Recent days have seen Islamic State fighters hang from a bridge the bodies of four executed members of the rival group that had attempted to take control of a key neighborhood in Sirte, according to local sources, who said as many as 200 people were killed in fighting in the area late last week. The fighting reportedly broke out after the rival group, backed by a local tribe, refused to pledge allegiance to Islamic State’s Syria- and Iraq-based leadership.
Such confrontations have become a hallmark of instability stemming from the failure of any single group to hold power long enough to form a sustainable government in Libya during the years since Gadhafi’s ouster.
Apart from Islamic State, the nation has two main rival governments. One recognized by Western nations for pushing an anti-Islamist message is operating from the eastern Libyan town of Tobruk, while the other, pushing an Islamist, but not specifically Islamic State-aligned message, claims control of Tripoli.
Much of the fighting involves disputes over who will control proceeds from the nation’s vast oil wealth.
With the Islamic State eagerly exploiting the chaos, U.N. attempts to foster talks between the Tobruk and Tripoli governments have so far proved unsuccessful.
Washington and its European allies have stood in support of the Tobruk government, but only to a limited extent. Tobruk officials regularly lament that they are powerless in the fight against the Islamic State because of an ongoing U.N. arms embargo on the country.
Tobruk officials referenced the embargo in their plea to the Arab League on Saturday.
“The Libyan government, unable to ward off these terrorist groups because of the arms embargo calls on brotherly Arab countries to launch airstrikes against specific targets of [Islamic State] locations in Sirte,” the officials said.
Egypt in the lead
Egypt, which shares a long and porous border with Libya and has for months called for international action against the Islamic State across North Africa, seems most likely to respond to the plea by seeking approval and assistance from other Arab powers to conduct airstrikes on targets in and around Sirte.
“The Egyptians are scared,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation who previously taught counterinsurgency strategy at West Point. “They’ve got ISIS-affiliated folks in Libya and in the Sinai Peninsula, so they’re increasingly nervous about ISIS coming deeper into Egypt.”
But, Mr. Fishman argued, an aerial bombing campaign — whether carried out by Egypt, another Arab power, or the U.S. — is unlikely to quell the wider political chaos in Libya that opened the way for the Islamic State’s foothold in the nation to begin with.
“Air power is not going to solve this problem,” he said in an interview. “Time and political resolution are going to solve this problem.”
“There is a very complex mix of actors right now in Libya, where you’ve got the established government, you’ve got various Islamist militants, you’ve got ISIS, and then you’ve got a bunch of other tribal groups and random militias in the mix as well,” Mr. Fishman said. “Order has broken down. That’s the foundation of all of this.”
If Egypt and other U.S. allies in the Arab League, such as Jordan, develop a “low-level sustainable campaign in order to try to impact the political arrangements among some of the rebel groups in Libya, then I think that could be a legitimate strategy,” Mr. Fishman said. “But they need to own that, and they need to own it long-term.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s Arab League meeting, the Obama administration seems eager to see others take the lead in Libya.
The White House turned a blind eye in March when Egyptian fighter jets suddenly pounded Islamic State targets in Libya after the group circulated a video showing the beachside beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
At the time, critics accused the Obama administration of underestimating Islamic State’s spread into North Africa. But more recent developments suggest the administration — consumed by the challenge of containing the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — is actually paving the way for Cairo to target the group.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who visited the Egyptian capital early this month, touted the delivery of F-16s to Egypt’s military, saying the fighter jets are “essential in the fight against terrorism.”
At the time, a senior State Department official told reporters that in meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Mr. Kerry had “reiterated the commitment of the United States to assisting the Egyptian people in their efforts to stem the spread of ISIL in the region.”
Less clear is whether such efforts will receive the backing of U.S. allies in Western Europe, where fears continue to mount that Islamic State’s hold on Libya may only grow during the months ahead.
“Time is limited, particularly now that [Islamic State] in Sirte has become alarming,” Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in remarks published by the Italian newspaper La Stampa on Monday.
Italy has been among the Western European nations most affected by Libya’s unrest. Agence France-Presse pointed to estimates on Monday that some 102,000 Libyans have attempted to flee across the Mediterranean over the past year alone — often attempting to reach Italian shores in unseaworthy vessels.