In recent weeks, a succession of U.S. and European officials have warned that military operations to stop the creeping advance of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the shattered North African state of Libya are imminent. Since the summer of 2014, ISIS has exploited a governance vacuum and a factional civil war in Libya to expand what was once just a toehold into a foothold. It has clashed with, and in some areas displaced, older jihadist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. It has used Libya’s lawlessness to attract foreign recruits, conduct training, and plot operations abroad. ISIS now controls the central coastal city of Sirte and is attacking the nearby petroleum facilities to prevent much-needed revenue from reaching Libya’s central bank. And perhaps most worrisome, U.S. officials recently stated that ISIS has sent hundreds of fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya in a calculated fallback strategy; the total number ISIS fighters in Libya is estimated between 3,000 and 6,500.
There’s no doubt that the ISIS presence demands a forcible response, above all from Libyans themselves, backed by Western support. That assistance is likely to involve special operations forces—who are reportedly already on the ground—liaising with, training, and advising Libyan units, backed by aircraft using precision-guided munitions. But this approach carries great risks. The West must proceed carefully, or else it could exacerbate Libya’s political fractures, encourage warlordism, or undermine attempts to re-establish a single government and lay the basis for a cohesive and civilian-controlled military. Any strategy to tackle ISIS should first aim at bridging Libyan political divides and channeling assistance in a way that promotes cooperation between rival forces.
LIBYA’S FAILED STATE
For Libyans and Western governments alike, the biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state. For the past year and half, the country has been split into two loose constellations of political factions and armed actors. The first is the Tripoli-based “Dawn” coalition, which comprises Islamist fighters and militias from the western part of
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