By Congressman Will Hurd
North and West Africa are breeding grounds for radical Islamic terrorism. The Obama administration has allowed this situation to fester too long by failing to produce a coherent strategy to stop Islamic State’s advances in the Maghreb in general and in Libya in particular. Following territorial losses in Iraq and Syria over the past year, ISIL has stepped up operations in Libya as the security situation there continues to crumble. The growing danger ISIL poses there means securing stability in Libya is just as important as it is in Syria and Iraq. If left unaddressed, Libya will provide ISIL with the space, the resources and the geographical opportunity to do some serious harm to our European allies and to us. As a CIA officer, I saw first-hand in Afghanistan the risks of allowing al-Qaeda to spread unchecked, and we cannot allow ISIL the same opportunity in Libya.
The White House’s forthcoming strategy to defeat ISIL in Libya must come soon, must be decisive and must be deliberate in the execution of its objectives to destroy their strongholds. The White House is finally and correctly considering scaling up military efforts in Libya, but the situation is already critical. Prior to an increase in military efforts, we must double the amount of the human intelligence flowing from the region. We need improved intelligence on the plans and intentions of ISIL leadership. We must understand the tactics, techniques and procedures used by ISIL ground forces in the region, and most importantly, we need to know which Libyan groups truly envision a future Libya that is peaceful, stable and respectful of human rights and civil liberties. Those groups will be our partners in this effort because any campaign to destroy ISIL must include cooperation with local groups on the ground.
ISIL attacks have targeted oil and gas plants with success over the past year with the aim of acquiring more resources, increasing their wealth, and depriving the country of a major source of economic stability. In March 2015, ISIL attackers assaulted Libya’s al-Ghani oil field, killing 11 guards and kidnapping nine foreigners. That month, they also attacked the Dhahra oil field, and likely took over the Bahi and Mabruk oil fields south of the city of Sirte.
They followed up on Sept. 1 with a vehicle-borne IED explosion, targeting the headquarters of Mellitah Oil and Gas company. Most recently, ISIL militants seized the oil port towns of Ben Jawad and Al Sidr, and set fire to a nearby oil facility in Ras Lanuf. And on Jan. 11, Libyan security forces repelled an ISIL maritime attack on the Zueitina oil field, north of the Libyan mainland. These attacks suggest that ISIL not only envisions Libya as a potential new stronghold, but as a source of wealth too.
Libya is quickly becoming a space from which ISIL has the capability to plot and execute attacks, and Libya’s proximity to Europe is deeply concerning. More than 30,000 people from over 100 different countries joined ISIL following their territorial gains in Iraq and Syria initially. We can expect a similar trend if ISIL continues to be successful in Libya. Additionally, al-Qaeda and ISIL are competitors in the global Salafi-Jihadist movement. ISIL has to keep winning new recruits to replace fighters killed on the battlefield. In order to do so, ISIL will have to conduct Paris style attacks and inspire people around the world to commit violent acts, such as the kind the U.S. witnessed in San Bernardino.
The attempted United Nations brokered negotiation between the main warring factions in Libya — the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) — to form a unity government was a step in the right direction. However, Libya will remain politically fragmented if it cannot achieve security stability and the rule of law. The pitfall of the negotiations is that they do not directly address the Salafi-Jihadist threat. Warring factions in Libya will continue to contest for power as long as they fail to believe in the legitimacy of U.N. efforts in their country. The U.N. will only acquire true legitimacy by being on the ground in Libya — not inside cushy rooms in Geneva. Increasing the fight against foreign and, or destabilizing groups in Libya — ISIL chief among them — should be the source of that legitimacy and the reason for warring groups in Libya to “buy in” to the solution.
The U.S. government strategy to defeat ISIL in Libya should look like the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — about 400 Americans (300 special forces and 100 CIA officers) partnering with local groups, along with the world’s greatest Air Force, killing three-quarters of al-Qaeda leadership and pushing all the Taliban out of the country. Our European partners could enforce diplomatic achievements by helping deploy technology and manpower to improve Libyan border security, and our regional partners could put boots on the ground to help coordinate with local Libyan forces. To protect the U.S. homeland and U.S. citizens abroad, we must deny extremists the territory to recruit, train and plot attacks, and Libya is one of those places. Hindsight from al-Qaeda’s growth in Afghanistan gives us the wisdom necessary to prevent ISIL from doing the same thing in Libya, but this Administration must have the foresight to use it.