There is an uncomfortable, and largely ignored, reality in the fact that the Islamic group has clearly benefited from the myopic western intervention in Libya.
Five years ago, NATO intervened in Libya to overthrow the long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, commonly known as Colonel Gaddafi. It succeeded in doing so, but the anarchic system that Libya inherited has directly benefited the rise of ISIS. Indeed, the North-African country is its largest power centre outside of the caliphate’s border in Iraq and Syria, and is still expanding.
In March 2011, NATO began its intervention with the stated aim to “protect human rights”. However, it soon became clear that the objective shifted to an outright ousting of the Libyan dictator. It is a little known fact that NATO continued to bomb, for several months, Gaddafi’s own retreating army (causing civilian casualties in the process). Moreover, this was after a ceasefire had been proposed by Gaddafi’s regime on 26th May 2011.
The death count from the intervention is lower than that claimed by the Libyan government, but still higher than admitted by NATO according to Human Rights Watch. Seven months later, in October 2011, the dictator was killed in his hometown of Sirte.
The subsequent elections in June 2012 were admittedly a very positive development. But “democracy” did not even last a month before it was overthrown by the various competing tribes and militias, who refused to put down arms (among which some pledged allegiance to ISIS). Indeed, the power vacuum in Libya allowed extremists groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the radical Islamic Youth Shura Council in the eastern city of Derna to flourish. The latter officially aligned with ISIS last October, with the creation of an “Islamic emirate” consisting in an extension of the Iraqi-Syrian caliphate.
Derna, well known for being a nest for radical extremism, hosted the Libyan branch of the Islamic group
Today, Libya is divided between two opposing administrations: one based in Tripoli and the other – internationally recognised – in the eastern coastal city of Tobruk. Terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have taken the opportunity to seize much of the territory in between and strengthen their presence.
Derna, well known for being a nest for radical extremism, hosted the Libyan branch of the Islamic group. Announced with a parade of vehicles and their infamous black flag, the occupation of ISIS in the city was followed by a number of human rights violations as strict Islamic law was established and beheadings, crucifixions and public executions were carried out. In order to supervise the creation of this branch, ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a Yemeni national, who was later killed by an American airstrike just outside the city last November. The presence of the extremist group became increasingly strengthened as the divide between the two governments grew larger and was able to expand towards central Libya where lucrative oil fields are located.
With this attempt of expanding towards the south, however, ISIS lost Derna to the hands of a rival militia linked to Al-Qaeda, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade in June 2015. Nonetheless, in the same month, they managed to capture Sirte where they were met with little resistance. This was ISIS’s first capture of an entire Libyan city, to which they subsequently proceeded to violently impose its radicalism. For example, the group hung the bodies of residents who attempted to rebel from lampposts and carried out public executions to stir fear into the locals.
As the Islamic group’s presence in Iraq and Syria is diminished by the US-led coalition, Russian airstrikes and Kurdish fighters, they have used Libya as a safe haven for its retreating leadership and troops. Protected by the ongoing instability, US estimates now put the total number of ISIS fighters in Libya at a maximum of six thousand, almost double previous estimates.
Media coverage of Libya since 2011 is almost inexistent because the country has simply become too dangerous for journalists to go
Western forces are now waiting for Libya to unify into a single administration to be able to fight the remaining forces of ISIS. It has been confirmed that American, British and French intelligence services have a presence on the ground in order to prepare the military in the light of the potential unification of the government. The recent visit of Mr Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister-designate of Libya (from the government based in Tobruk), to Tripoli is supposed to be the first step towards this unification. In the meantime, the Islamic state continues to make progress and ‘could control two-thirds of Libya’ according to the BBC.
The rise of ISIS has undoubtedly resulted in a heightened threat to European security as the attacks in Paris and in Belgium showed. There is an uncomfortable, and largely ignored, reality in the fact that the Islamic group has clearly benefited from the myopic western intervention in Libya. Media coverage of Libya since 2011 is almost inexistent because the country has simply become too dangerous for journalists to go. As Obama admitted in an interview with Fox News at the beginning of April, Libya is what he considers to be the biggest mistake of his presidency. Notably, he mentions the lack of foresight in ‘failing to plan for the day after’ the airstrikes. It seems that Libya’s fragile balance of power and the political position of the rebels, whom NATO actually fought for, was unknown to western leaders. This was a fundamental error on the part of the west, especially given the fact that many of these rebels belonged to extremist groups allied to ISIS.
It is hard to ignore the tragic paradox surrounding the former Libyan dictator Gaddafi. Indeed, Gaddafi repressed radical Islamists as much as he could because they posed a direct threat to his authority. The progress of ISIS in Libya is evidently linked to his downfall: a downfall that was almost exclusively as a consequence of NATO’s original intervention.
Of course, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the Libyan dictator remained in power and reach the conclusion that ISIS would therefore have not had the opportunity to expand. However, the anarchy that Libyan people have subsequently had to endure has even triggered in some of them a feeling of nostalgia towards the fallen leader. Whilst the Gaddafi regime cannot, and should not, be defended, perhaps it is time to recognise the real limits, unintended consequences and contradictions that ‘humanitarian’ intervention has.