Libya After ISIS: How Trump Can Prevent The Next War
In an article for Foreign Affairs, Frederic Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher discuss the complexities of the Libyan political situation, the persistent threat that ISIS poses in the country despite their territorial defeats, and what role the US can play in helping Libya to avoid falling into greater conflict and insecurity:
Now is the time for careful and robust American diplomatic leadership. The Trump administration must first school itself in the complexities of Libyan politics, shunning the easy and incorrect categorizations of “Islamist” and “secular” or “nationalist.” It must avoid viewing the country solely through a counterterrorism lens and sub-contracting its Libya policy to regional states, especially Egypt, whose partisan and securitized approach will produce more division and radicalization. Punting the Libya issue to Europe is also a non-starter; without American backing, a European role will lack credibility, inviting Russia to be the key power broker. Backing one side in Libya’s conflicts, as some regional leaders are seeking to persuade the United States to do, would trigger a major escalation and a long civil war.
Today, ISIS is no longer a territorial force in Libya in any meaningful sense. That said, its demise presents a number of dangers. First, remnants of ISIS could still reconstitute themselves and sow trouble. Already, fighters have fled to the desert valleys south of Sirte, where they’ve tried to regroup in small encampments like the one the United States bombed on January 18 of this year. The group is said to have a residual presence around the Western town of Sabratha, a hub for Tunisian jihadists, and its clandestine cells are still capable of attacking in and around the capital.
Beyond these specific threats, Libya remains an attractive host to jihadism, whether from ISIS, al Qaeda, or some new variant. The conditions are ripe: a long legacy of jihad, economic despair, a governance vacuum, and worsening polarization that could leave some communities feeling as if they have no recourse but violence. The networks and infrastructure of existing jihadist groups could easily give way to new mutations, much as ISIS co-opted or peeled away Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Sabratha, and Sirte. Most importantly, jihadism thrives on conflict; ISIS expanded during Libya’s last round of factional fighting starting in mid-2014, inserting itself in the fissures wrought by the conflict between the so-called Dawn and Dignity camps.
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