The New Pirates of Libya

Why the rise of the radical Islamists in North Africa threatens America directly -- and how to stop it.

A fighter of Libya's Fajr Libya group (Libyan Dawn) fires his gun during clashes in the hill village of Kikla, southwest of Tripoli on October 21, 2014. The internationally recognised Libyan government called for a civil disobedience campaign in Tripoli until its forces retake the capital from militias who seized it. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA        (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
A fighter of Libya's Fajr Libya group (Libyan Dawn) fires his gun during clashes in the hill village of Kikla, southwest of Tripoli on October 21, 2014. The internationally recognised Libyan government called for a civil disobedience campaign in Tripoli until its forces retake the capital from militias who seized it. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the last 200 years, Libya has again and again altered the West’s political and economic trajectory. America’s war with the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s led to the re-creation of the U.S. Navy. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s price-squeezing of independent U.S. oil companies in the early 1970s helped give rise to OPEC. And Qaddafi’s failure in the 2000s to let go his grip on power helped spawn the demons of the Arab Spring.

Yet despite Libya’s strong influence on the course of Western history, it seems none of this has made a lasting impression on Western political consciousness. Let’s hope that policymakers start learning from history before a vicious jihadism that is finding a new home on Libya’s Mediterranean shores makes itself felt on the home front and, once again, Libya changes the course of world events.

Over the last four years, Libya has become a key node in the expansion of Islamic radicalism across North Africa, West Africa, and the Sahel, and into Europe. Arms and fighters have crossed Libya’s porous borders, feeding radical organizations from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to Boko Haram and reinforcing radical trends in the heart of the Middle East. If events in Libya continue on their current path, they will likely haunt the United States and its Western allies for a decade or more.

The current situation in Libya is the product of a series of significant mistakes, erroneous assumptions, and myths that date back to NATO intervention in 2011.The United States and its NATO allies made a fundamental mistake in not imposing a robust reconstruction plan on Libya and stabilizing the country before radicalism was able to flourish. Even U.S. President Barack Obama understands that this was a mistake: In an interview last year with the New York Times, he cited lack of a plan for “the day after Qaddafi is gone” as potentially one of his biggest foreign-policy regrets. (The Libyans, of course, share much of the blame too.)

The first visible signs of trouble came within a few months of the February 2011 revolution with a series of high-profile assassinations of ex-Qaddafi regime figures, starting in July with the killing of former Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes. At the time, no one claimed responsibility for these assassinations, but suspicion fell on the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia.

Next came assaults on U.S. and Western interests — most dramatically, the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In January 2013, militants attempted to assassinate the Italian consul general in Benghazi. The fact that these attacks were concentrated in Benghazi was not random. The city was simultaneously the heart of the Libyan revolution and its Achilles’ heel. The Islamists knew that weakening the nascent government where it could least protect itself was the key to a takeover.

Back in Tripoli, the capital, seemingly more moderate forces were working within the newly established electoral process to take down the government from within. Libya’s arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), and its allies initially made a stronger than expected showing in the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s first post-revolution parliament, in elections held in July 2012. The JCP then recruited independent members, wittingly and unwittingly, to control the GNC before popular pressure forced them to agree to new elections scheduled for June 25, 2014, which decisively reversed their previous gains.

But that’s when things got really ugly. Islamists boycotted the newly elected GNC and the subsequent transfer of the house of representatives to Tobruk in the east; in response, they formed Libya Dawn, uniting Islamists and militias from the important coastal city of Misurata. Libya Dawn’s operations were accelerated by the coalescence of an anti-Islamic front under the controversial figure of Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Libya Dawn’s various elements are united by the belief that ex-Qaddafi figures are trying to stage a comeback. Haftar is their poster child. He has not been entirely effective in repelling the Islamist threat in the east, but he has attracted broad support from those in Libya who seek to push back the Islamists.

In this chaos, extremist activity has flourished, and the country has become a nexus for jihadis from around the region, as well as for the Islamist opposition from neighboring Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. These elements are radicalizing the local population by force and persuasion. Libyans say it is common knowledge that flights regularly depart Tripoli loaded with fighters bound for the Syrian front. What is happening now in Libya is not an isolated set of events, nor is it fundamentally about militias, tribal rivalries, and criminal elements — though the influence of all of those is apparent. Libya has been colonized by Islamists.

As if it didn’t have enough problems, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani’s government and the Libyan house of representatives have another dilemma in the form of Haftar and the Libyan army. Haftar, a Qaddafi-era general turned anti-Islamist crusader, has become an inspiration for the majority of Libyans who want to reclaim their country from extremism. But his blunt-force campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and all Islamists alike has been dangerously unharnessed. His bombing campaigns have often caused collateral damage, which plays into the hands of the radicals seeking to demonize the elected government. Haftar could be part of the solution to Libya’s chaos and could become a national hero in the process, if he were willing (or compelled) to subordinate his power to a legal process and a clear chain of command.

The legitimate government shows all indication of wanting the United States and the West to help bring the army under the government’s command. Moreover, the house of representatives needs help to reassert control over Libya’s assets and financial institutions, to bolster efforts to cut the funding to militias and extremists, and to give it the necessary cover to enforce a durable command structure. To date, however, Washington seems disinclined to put any real weight behind the government, preferring to tell all parties that they need to seek consensus.

But Libya’s government has told the United States and the West that it does not wish to be forced into a pointless dialogue with forces that want to destroy it. That makes sense. The conflict will not be solved by nudging all sides to talk because the vast majority of those with power, outside the Thani government, have a vested interest in buying time. This makes it dispiriting to watch the United Nations, the United States, and its allies push for a “national unity government” – something impossible when one side has a legitimate popular mandate and the other answers to a murderous ideology.

An intelligent international policy would support the rule of law in the form of Libya’s remaining legitimate government. To do this, Washington must provide military advice, logistical support, and humanitarian assistance to that government and help build up the Libyan army. The West should also work with neighboring countries to help secure Libya’s borders and interdict the movement of foreign fighters.

Before doing this, there must be credible guarantees that those who would fight the expansion of the Islamic State agree to work together in a formal alliance governed by rules. Libya’s political forces must furthermore adhere to a road map to a constitution that protects the rights that radicals wish to take away. Outside states must understand that only authorized and internationally supervised funding, training, and supplying of the recognized government will be allowed. And the West must commit to ambitious Marshall Plan-like investment to supplant the existing militia stipends with wage-earning activity, education, and training.

None of this will be easy. But it’s not altruistic either. This is the last chance to prevent a massive proliferation of forces that wish to take the fight directly to American soil. In the 1700s, Washington only reacted to the threat posed by the Barbary pirates to American merchants in the Mediterranean after it was already too late. Today, the pirates in Libya are far more dangerous, part of a multinational, ideologically united force that threatens U.S. interests not only in the region, but also at home. It’s time to stop them before Libya changes world history once again.

Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Ethan Chorin is the author of Exit the Colonel and Translating Libya. He was posted to Libya as a U.S. foreign service officer from 2004 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter: @EthanChorin.