A U.S.-led coalition is grappling over how to fight the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed allies in Libya and beyond without taking its eyes off Iraq and Syria.
- By Lara JakesLara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband.
A violent extremist group in Libya has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and kills in the name of the Islamic State, but U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is torn on whether it is, in fact, part of the Islamic State.
Declaring a brutal branch of the Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia to be an official offshoot of the Islamic State could potentially compel reluctant nations to use military force against extremists in Libya, further weakening the already faltering fight against the network. Washington is sharply divided, with U.S. officials describing a debate over the extremists’ growth in Libya as recent intelligence shows Islamic State leaders and fighters heading there from strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Allies in Europe and the Mideast are similarly conflicted. As the Islamic State’s reach continues to spread, some countries now feel more threatened by the outcropping of extremists across Asia and in North Africa than by those based in Iraq and Syria.
But confronting what the Islamic State calls its “distant provinces” could come at a high cost: Diverting limited funds and focus to Libya likely would pull from the fight in Iraq and Syria, where extremist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is steadily seizing territory in his quest to establish an extremist Sunni caliphate. In the past few days alone, the group has captured Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and the strategically important Syrian city of Palmyra.
In a clear illustration of Washington’s divide, one senior U.S. official said, “There is no question that there are ISIL fighters present in Libya” — including some taking orders directly from Baghdadi. The official said it’s impossible to know how many, since some simply label themselves as Islamic State for propaganda gain. Some estimates conclude that as many as 5,000 fighters in Libya identify themselves with the Islamic State.
By contrast, a U.S. intelligence official downplayed the Islamic State’s scope. The group’s influence “has undoubtedly grown in Libya,” the official said. But “despite some defections to ISIL, Ansar al-Sharia has to date largely maintained its identity as a distinct extremist group,” he said.
Three U.S. officials and all of the foreign diplomats interviewed for this report spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to discuss the debate more frankly. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State’s former name.
Baghdadi’s caliphate, by almost every measure, is growing. Recent intelligence indicates that the Islamic State’s headquarters in Iraq and Syria have sent funds to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, fighters to Tunisia, and advice to Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. A Mideast diplomat, who refused to be identified by his nationality, said the group is now operating in as many as 16 countries, including Algeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In Libya, meanwhile, militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State continue to rampage through the country, and on Thursday its Barqah division reported launching a suicide attack against security forces near the village of Harawa, not far from the coastal city of Sirte. A day earlier, extremists claiming to be part of the Islamic State’s Tripoli division said they had seized military bases near Sirte and published photos showing off vehicles, weapons, and ammunition they claimed to have captured after heavy clashes with local militias, according to SITE Intelligence, which monitors online jihadi messaging.
For the White House, though, such pictures may not be enough to convince senior administration officials that the militants in Libya are directly linked to Baghdadi. The administration has clear political reasons for avoiding a formal, public pronouncement that the Islamic State has spread to Libya: That would further embolden critics who believe Obama was too slow to confront the militants in Iraq and Syria and hasn’t devoted enough military resources to the fight there.
“Within the Obama administration, the stronger party is focused on Iraq,” the Mideast diplomat said in a recent interview. “They are so occupied with Syria and Iraq, they are not focused on ISIL affiliates in Libya.”
It’s also true, however, that defeating the Islamic State in its own backyard would deliver a crippling, if not fatal, blow to the entire network. “To get at ISIL, you have to strike at the caliphate,” a senior U.S. official said.
The question of how to deal with the Islamic State as it spreads across Asia and Africa will be front and center at a June 2 meeting in Paris of diplomats who are part of the global coalition to defeat the extremists. Their debate over the “distant provinces” of the militant network is just the latest hurdle confronting the 60-nation alliance, which is beset by political rivalries and has little to show for its efforts since its creation last summer.
In Libya’s case, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Abu Abdullah al-Libi, pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State this past March. Once bayat is pledged, the group is officially considered part of the Islamic State, said Robert Ford, a leading Arabist and former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria.
Ansar al-Sharia is widely believed to be the largest of Libya’s jihadi groups, however, and U.S. officials said not all of its militants followed the pledge.
Washington is also under pressure from countries like Egypt and Italy, where leaders are worriedly watching what they describe as the unmistakable rise of the Islamic State in Libya.
Islamic State fighters beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya this past February, and the group has threatened to attack Italy and potentially even the Vatican, as thousands of North African migrants flee from Libya for safety across the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily are located just a few hundred miles from Libya’s shores.
“Regarding in Libya, Italy is asking that we should use all possible instruments and tools that are being developed in the coalition” to counter the Islamic State, an Italian diplomat said in an interview this week. “Wherever ISIL is trying to arise, we are asking our partners to enlarge the scope.”
Specifically, the diplomat said, Rome wants the 60-nation coalition to start focusing on how to limit foreign fighters and funding from moving between Libya and other Islamic State havens, including Iraq and Syria.
However, the Italian diplomat cited likely insurmountable divisions within the coalition over using military force against Islamic State fighters in Libya, where the 2011 NATO assault that ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi unleashed continuing violence and political chaos.
Even in 2011, the Obama administration had little appetite for getting deeply involved in Libya, and now it is far more reluctant to do so without the help of any reliable government there. The United Nations is trying to broker a political agreement among Libya’s interim government and competing parties to create a lasting, democratic rule before the mid-June start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, but almost certainly will fail to meet that deadline. Libya’s legislature expires in October, and the United Nations is feverishly working to schedule national elections before then.
The Italian diplomat insisted that there is a “growing consensus” within the coalition to identify Ansar al-Sharia militants as an Islamic State front in Libya — which, in turn, could force a military response. But other European diplomats are taking a far more cautious approach, arguing for focusing the coalition’s efforts solely on fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria.
“If we start to have a Libya that is totally taken over by militants who are actually not just saying, but are having active and proven connections to Daesh in Syria and Iraq, we might have to extend its definition,” said one Washington-based European diplomat, who refused to be identified by his nationality.
Daesh is the acronym of the Islamic State’s full name in Arabic.
Congress this year sidelined an Obama administration proposal to use military force against the Islamic State, fearing that its open-ended scope could send U.S. troops across the globe to fight any militant organization that flies the extremist group’s signature black flag. But lawmakers are also deeply divided over the limits of the president’s authority to order military strikes, and House Speaker John Boehner this week said the White House should “start over” with a new plan in the wake of Ramadi’s fall.
Those fears get to the heart of the concerns over formally recognizing Ansar al-Sharia as an Islamic State affiliate. To prevent just any extremist group from declaring itself a branch of the Islamic State — and winning the jihadi prestige that this label brings — the 60-nation coalition is trying to develop a set of criteria that must be met before a group is seen as a broad, legitimate threat. A similar set of criteria — including a command structure between core leaders and affiliates, and posing a direct threat to the United States and Western interests — was adopted by the U.S. government for al Qaeda as it metastasized during the last decade.
One U.S. official this week predicted that guidelines for identifying Islamic State offshoots will be introduced at the June 2 meeting, though the coalition is not expected to specifically name any affiliates.
Ford, the former U.S. ambassador, cast doubt on Baghdadi’s ability to control the Islamic State’s distant provinces in places like Libya or other locations where militants have pledged bayat. He noted “varying degrees of integration of groups outside Syria and Iraq into the Islamic State,” but said the oath of allegiance should be considered a deciding factor as to whether they are an official affiliate.
“Once they’ve done that, to me, then you have to put them on a list,” Ford said.
As recently as February, at least 33 extremist groups had linked themselves to the Islamic State, and that number all but certainly has grown in the months since, the Mideast diplomat said. Over the six-month period from August 2014 to February 2015, he said, coalition forces killed an estimated 7,000 Islamic State fighters. But in that same period, the Islamic State recruited 8,000 more.
“So whatever we are doing, it is not effective, compared to the root causes of terrorism,” said the Mideast diplomat. He said some countries want to directly confront Ansar al-Sharia: “The fighters in western Libya have adopted the same methodology as ISIL, and we should fight them all,” he said.
Meanwhile, “the U.S. position is, let’s do this one at a time,” he said, predicting that there will be little, if any, substantive progress made at the meeting in Paris.
“This is going to lead to nowhere within the coalition,” he said. “We should do something before it is too late.”
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