- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2015

With the unrest in Yemen dominating the headlines in recent days, a widening war among Libya’s militant factions is pushing the North African nation higher on the list of failed states that provide safe haven for the region’s terrorist groups just four years after a U.S.-backed campaign ousted former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

After the elation of the uprisings that toppled dictators in nearby Egypt and Tunisia, regional observers are describing the chaotic security landscape that has emerged in Libya as a kind of “Syria 2.0” — a poster child for what went wrong in many of the nations unsettled by the Arab Spring.

The situation is particularly vexing for the Obama administration, which provided much of the muscle of the NATO military campaign to oust Gadhafi. Now Libya is the violence-wracked home to two separate parliaments, each backed by its own militant factions, presenting a counterterrorism challenge beyond the U.S. ability to contain or control.

Analysts and U.S. intelligence officials say the number of militias operating in Libya has only surged over the past year, with one of the nation’s key oil ports — in the northeastern city of Darnah — controlled by jihadis and the Syria-based Islamic State movement gaining an increasing foothold in the nation.

While there is debate in U.S. national security circles over whether Libya’s swirl of militias is focused on U.S. or European interests, officials are wary about the long-term implications of the security vacuum in the nation.

“Libya’s lawless operating environment and network of extremists, some of which are tied to al Qaeda and [the Islamic State], compounds the threat of plots on Western targets in the country and further afield,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to secrecy surrounding intelligence threat assessments, added that, owing to its strategic location, “Libya provides ample training camps, weapons and ease of movement through the country to other jihadist fronts.”

Private analysts say the risks are likely only to escalate.

“The longer this situation continues, the more the extremists are able to utilize Libya for weapons smuggling and the creation of terrorist training camps,” said Jason Pack, a researcher at Cambridge University and president of the private consulting firm Libya-Analysis.com.

Since overall Libyan society is “not very radicalized,” the long-term potential terrorist threat is, more than anything else, a “product of a failed Libyan state,” Mr. Pack added.

Aaron Y. Zelin, a Washington-based analyst whose “Jihadology” website examines global jihadi groups, said Libya resembles a North African “Game of Thrones,” in which “a bunch of different actors are trying to outmaneuver each other to become the new top dog.”

“Just because it doesn’t necessarily have an immediate direct threat to the West doesn’t mean it’s not relevant,” said Mr. Zelin. “The reality is the more jihadists there are in more areas, the more difficult it is to roll stuff back in the long run, and therefore you create a whole arc of instability over time, which then can directly threaten Western countries in the future.”

He said Libya ranks only behind Syria and Iraq as a potential safe haven for terrorist groups seeking to carry out regional or even global attacks.

Power vacuum

The instability in Libya stems from the failure of any single group to hold power long enough to form a sustainable government in the years since Gadhafi’s ouster. The nation presently has two rival governments: One recognized by Western governments for pushing an anti-Islamist message is operating from the eastern Libyan town of Tobruk, while the other, pushing an Islamist message, claims control of Tripoli.

A key thrust of the fight centers on who will control proceeds from crude oil sold from the nation’s ports along the southern Mediterranean Sea.

Washington and its European allies have so far stood in support of the Tobruk government. But recent U.N. attempts to foster talks that might end a constitutional stalemate, along with competing claims of sovereignty, have so far proved unsuccessful. While U.N. officials claimed on Monday to have held a second round of the talks, only representatives from the Tobruk government showed up.

The development came against a backdrop of fresh instability on the ground, including reports that masked gunmen had briefly kidnapped and then released the deputy foreign minister of the Tobruk-based government. Separately, Reuters on Sunday reported that Islamist militants were engaged in clashes with forces aligned with the Tobruk government in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The U.S. presence in Libya has been limited significantly since the 2012 terrorist assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The State Department subsequently described Libya as a “terrorist safe haven,” and the Obama administration moved to suspend operations at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli last July, relocating U.S. personnel out of the country.

At the time, White House officials said the pullout would be “temporary.” However, the State Department acknowledged last week that the embassy remains closed “due to ongoing violence between Libyan militias.”

A September 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service outlined how Libya presented a particular challenge to the administration’s overall counterterrorism strategy.

“During recent fighting, some Libyans have vigorously rejected others’ calls for international support and assistance and traded accusations of disloyalty and treason in response to reports of partnership with foreign forces,” the report stated. “These dynamics raise questions about the potential viability of the partnership approach favored by the Obama administration and some in Congress.”

A high-level diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak freely with the media, said the “situation on the ground has changed over the past two years to a point that it has rendered the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy for the nation ineffective.”

Some analysts believe the U.S. and its allies may have moved too quickly to back the Tobruk government before a post-revolution constitutional process had completely played out in Libya.

Mr. Pack argued that many in the West are guilty of oversimplifying the crisis by attempting to frame it as a clear battle between an anti-Islamist government in Tobruk and an Islamist one in Tripoli.

“Libya is a slow-moving train wreck, and we’ve been seeing it develop for two years,” he said. “We need to do the adult thing here and disincentivize bad actors while insisting they move forward with the constitutional process.

“The way to do that is to declare that no one has sovereignty.”

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