ISIS In Libya: What Policy Options Does The United States Have Left?

Douglas B. Baker Managing Director, Monument Capital Group
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In the days following the recent terror attacks and subsequent arrests in Brussels, ISIS is back in the news and dominating many of today’s headlines. On the upside, after an eighteen month air campaign and a coordinated ground campaign, the Obama administration can show signs of progress in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but the growing threat that ISIS presents in Europe, Africa and elsewhere cannot be overlooked.

In Libya for instance, ISIS’s presence has grown. Some reports show that ISIS today has approximately 8,000 fighters in Libya, and controls about 120 miles of Libya coastline including Sirte. Sirte is a major oil hub for Libya, and approximately 700 miles from Rome.

Libya has been in disarray since the international coalition overthrew Muammer Gaddafi in 2011. And the administration’s “hands off” approach since the fatal attacks in Benghazi in September 2012 has provided room for ISIS to grow. In the intervening five years Libya has held multiple elections that have led to multiple governments, which all saw their legitimacy questioned. In the absence of U.S. leadership, ISIS has taken advantage of the situation, seizing property and oil assets, and earning additional revenue through human smuggling.

For the last two years, the Obama administration essentially ignored the democratically elected and internationally recognized government and worked with the United Nations to create a Government of National Accord for Libya. This created a security vacuum which allowed the space for ISIS to gain a foothold and grow in Libya. Adding to the chaos, Libya’s oil infrastructure – and major source of employment and revenue — also began to crumble or fall into the hands of the terrorists or militias. Throughout this timeframe, there were embargoes on oil and arms that hamstrung the democratically elected government and further enabled ISIS’s growth. To compound the situation, in late 2015, there were reports out of Libya that the Central Bank may run out of money in late 2016 if Libya could not increase its production and trade oil, and that would create additional economic advantage for ISIS recruiting efforts; which pays roughly $1,000 a month to its recruits.

The political situation in Libya remains unresolved today and the three governments that claim legitimacy do not show the collective ability to disarm, destroy and degrade ISIS on its own.

Without decisive American leadership, the international community will continue to wait or pursue its own agenda and ISIS will continue to grow its tentacles in Libya. However, some in the United States Government do recognize the growing threat of ISIS in Libya, and that we should not wait for the Libyan political situation to resolve itself. There appears to be some daylight in policy between the Pentagon and the White House. It is likely that the limited drone strikes that have been taking place will continue for the near term, but will lack the persistence and power that was applied to Iraq and Syria. There are also reports that U.S. Special Operations Forces are in Libya, along with United Kingdom forces who are vetting select Libyan militias with whom to partner to take on ISIS as well as other terrorist threats in Libya.  But time is of the essence.

The Obama administration should provide support to the nascent Libyan National Army and the vetted Libyan militias, this support would provide them with training, materials, intelligence, air support and logistics and will allow the Libyans to root out ISIS. In addition, we should work with the Libyans to gain control of the maritime coastlines to ensure that we can cut off the flow of refugees which will also cut off a revenue source for ISIS. Without the United States providing the needed political and military leadership, ISIS will continue to grow its base in Libya, and the new U.S. administration in 2017 will be left with even fewer policy or military options.

Douglas Baker is the co-founder and managing director of Monument Capital Group, a private investment and advisory firm focused on opportunities in global and national security.  He served as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security.  

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Douglas B. Baker