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The dangers of a new Libyan intervention

UN peacekeepers in Mali UN Photo/Marco Dormino

NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, coming shortly after the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, was hailed at the time as a “humanitarian intervention.” It was, at least according to the UN Security Council resolution used as authorisation, intended to bring about a ceasefire and end attacks against civilians that “might constitute crimes against humanity.”

Gaddafi is gone, as are the foreign fighter planes, but Libya is far from stable. There are two rival governments – one in Tobruk and one in Tripoli – and the so-called Islamic State has been making major gains in the embattled and now chaotic country. Foreign powers have been expressing concern about the group’s expansion in the oil-rich state, and although US Secretary of State John Kerry has ruled out another military intervention, there are signs that such action may be on the cards.

Some Libyans, forced to flee IS or live under its rule, are themselves beginning to discuss intervention as the only way forward.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, an independent geopolitical researcher and analyst on African security, discusses the dangerous repercussions he believes intervention would have for the continent.

More than five years since the Arab Spring was sparked in Tunisia, history is about to repeat itself. Despite statements from leaders like Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni that his country will not intervene in Libya without the request of a national unity government, Western powers are urging the formation of such a government and quietly preparing to step in. But they should think twice: a new intervention would have dramatic consequences for Africa, already suffering under the weight of Islamist radicalisation.

With a budget of billions and an estimated fighting force of anywhere between 52,000 and 275,000, according to various estimates, the so-called Islamic State has the finances and the manpower to take a firm hold in Africa. Rather than destroying IS, a military intervention is likely to send it into a dangerous flight that will resonate in the rest of the continent.

If forced to make a getaway, IS fighters – not to mention those from other groups with a presence in south Libya like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – will have no trouble crossing the Sahel and Maghreb’s porous borders, finding safe haven further south.

African spread

Intelligence reports suggest 30,000 foreign fighters have joined IS, with no less than 5,000-7,000 of them in Libya. If ousted from the country, these men are likely to return home or find a place elsewhere with their newly acquired arms, ammunition, and fighting expertise.

Locals are not exempt from the draw of IS: in January Algeria arrested some 300 Moroccans attempting to cross into Libya – the suspicion is they were planning to join the 1,500 Moroccans already among the group’s ranks.

Once outside Libya, IS may form stronger ties with other militant groups that are on the rise in Africa, such as al-Shabab, Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Boko Haram. Perhaps a worse (and more likely) scenario than unity is that the differences between these groups will lead them to compete for who can draw the most blood.

These groups are already piling up quite the death toll in Africa: AQIM and its affiliate al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for a January attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou that killed at least 30; Ansar Dine copped to killing 5 UN peacekeepers in a February attack in northern Mali; al-Shabab killed 14 civilians when they attacked a Mogadishu hotel later that month; and AQIM hit again in mid-March, killing at least 16 people on an Ivory Coast beach. And these are hardly the only examples of Islamist militant action in the region.

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Briefing: The new Jihadist strategy in the Sahel

What a difference 5 years makes

But it’s Tunisia, with its 500-kilometre shared border with Libya, that would be the first to feel the dangerous impact of a militant spillover.

This draw of militancy in the nascent and vulnerable democracy has been a concern for some time – some 3,000 Tunisians are believed to be among IS’s ranks. Tunisian security forces killed at least 36 militants on 7 March – civilians were also killed in the clashes – after they launched a cross-border raid from Libya on the eastern Tunisian town of Ben Gardane.

Tunisian authorities said the gunmen in two deadly attacks last year had trained with IS in Libya. The March 2015 attack on Tunis’ Bardo National Museum killed 21, and was the deadliest single attack on Tunisian soil since the Arab Spring. Soon after, in June 2015, that grim record was broken as 38 people were killed in a shooting at the Port El Kantaoui beach resort.

If foreign powers do make a move, it won’t just be existing fighters Africa has to worry about. A foreign military intervention in Libya would undoubtedly trigger support for IS from other disaffected Libyans, not to mention those from other countries. Foreign intervention could also give IS’s leadership an excuse to call for further attacks like those in Paris or Brussels, carried out by undetectable lone wolves.

It’s also worth considering the mass displacement an intervention would likely cause. Further fighting or bombing would send hundreds of thousands of refugees into Tunisia, other neighbouring countries, and eventually Europe.

The failure of peace talks

A military intervention – even talk of one – is clear evidence that peace talks between Libya’s rivals have failed.

Last December, representatives of the rival governments agreed to form a national unity government during UN-sponsored talks in Skhirat, Morocco.

But signatories were under pressure from foreign players to sign on the dotted line, and members of both camps rejected it from the outset.

The unity government exists so far in name only. On 25 March, the authorities in Tripoli declared a “maximum state of emergency” following reports the “unity” government would force its way into Tripoli to begin its work.

France is among the governments pushing for unity, and perhaps intervention – the Shkirat agreement stipulates that foreign intervention requires Libya’s agreement.

Its reasons are myriad: the Quai d’Orsay may feel a certain sense of responsibility for its zealous participation in the 2011 military action and the chaos that ensued.

In addition, French intervention in Libya would strengthen its political and military position in the Sahel and the Maghreb. While France – like other Western countries – says it only has designs on weakening IS in Libya – it is easy to see that there might be longer-term regional strategy at work.

France’s ambitions in Libya are not new. In September 2014, France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian began urging action in Libya, saying:  “we need to act in Libya and mobilise the international community.”

The Paris attacks may have strengthened French resolve to fight terrorism – but emotion from a wounded French capital is no reason to put Libya’s civilians in even greater danger.

Just because we have a hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail

Libyan civilians are in a tough spot, stuck between dangerous warring parties, but a military intervention won’t put an end to their worries.

A comment US President Barack Obama made back in 2014 on why the military option should be a last resort is appropriate here: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said at the time.

It’s crucial to remember that wars are won with a little bit of military force and a lot of political will. And Libyans from Tripoli to Tobruk are resolutely against a foreign military intervention – Tripoli even says it will fight against one.

There are alternatives. Libya needs long-term political vision, including an inclusive dialogue where the main Libyan players set aside their self-interest and political interests. A solution to Libya’s problems must come under an international legal framework that respects Libya’s sovereignty.

In January, the African Union convened the International Contact Group for Libya in Addis Ababa – an effort to help Libyans establish peace. At the meeting, UN special representative to Libya Martin Kobler said the group was “not only testament to the AU’s dedication to peace and security in the continent, but also to UN-AU cooperation on the matter.”

His words must now be followed by actions. The 2011 NATO fiasco in Libya makes it paramount that the AU’s international partners genuinely listen and take into account its opinions and important regional voice. Libya is the perfect chance to show that both the AU and Africans really matter to the rest of the world.


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