To Beat ISIS in Libya, the West Must Help Build Unity From the Bottom Up

A fighter from Misrata sits on top of a vehicle near Sirte, Libya, March 16. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

With the world still reeling from the tragedy in Paris on November 13, few locations besides the French capital are feeling the consequences as keenly as Libya. As key Western nations formulate new "muscular" strategies to check the threat of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Libya is coming firmly into the Pentagon's crosshairs.

Since Muammar el-Qaddafi's ouster in 2011, the country has rapidly spiraled out of control as scores of local militias dominate the country's power centers. Libya's anarchy makes it an easy pathway to Europe for migrants and jihadis, as well as an important safe haven for ISIS masterminds on the run. Sirte—ISIS's foothold in North Africa—and its embattled outpost in Derna stand to receive a great deal more scrutiny, which has thus far sought unsuccessfully to goad various Libyan militias into action against the group.

Unsurprisingly then, one day after the attacks in Paris, French planes flew sorties over Sirte and U.S. jets targeted ISIS's top functionary in Libya, Abu Nabil al-Anbari. Al-Anbari had been spectacularly successful in growing the ISIS brand in North Africa over the last year, importing scores of battle-hardened fighters and extending the Raqqa model of governance to Sirte. His targeting represents both the first time military force was used against ISIS outside of Syria and Iraq as well as a stark change in Western tactics in Libya—from supporting U.N.-backed political mediation to practicing military containment.

While this change of approach may reflect the unfortunately accurate assessment that attempts to restart the stalled U.N. negotiations process are bound to fail, bombings are unlikely to be more successful. Rather, uncritically expanding U.S. President Barack Obama's "degrade and destroy ISIS" policy to Libya does not acknowledge that the strategy of aerial pinpricks has heretofore bolstered ISIS's underdog appeal and caused the U.S. to shed allies in its anti-ISIS fight.

In Libya, continued bombings would demonstrate not a more engaged Western policy, but a simultaneously militaristic and hands-off approach that may hinder the more crucial diplomatic work.

ISIS exists in Libya due to the political vacuum. The group does not receive overwhelming support from the local populations it controls and lacks Iraq and Syria's sectarian cleavages to play off of for recruitment. If Libya ceased to be an ungoverned space, the country's tribal structure and traditionally conservative forms of Islam would facilitate the eviction of ISIS.

And yet Western attempts to create a Government of National Accord (GNA)—the intended culmination of the year-long U.N. negotiations process—have been fatally undercut by intertwined scandals. The U.A.E. was exposed for violating the U.N. arms embargo and bribing the outgoing head of the U.N. Mission in Libya with a lucrative job offer into favoring the Emiratis' anti-Islamist clients. The only solution to Libya's multipolar civil war was thought to be mediation by a respected outside arbiter, but it is now clear that the U.N.'s neutrality is in tatters and the switch to a new envoy is not a sufficient solution.

As international efforts have stalled, the political centers in Libya—the Tobruq-based House of Representatives and rival Tripoli-based General National Congress—have not made any independent strides towards effective, trustworthy governance. Quite the opposite, they are fragmenting and increasingly corrupt.

Meanwhile, ISIS continues to reinforce its presence. In an operation that must have been intended to capitalize on the American strike, the Libyan National Army—a 'militia' led by U.S.-trained General Khalifa Haftar—attempted its own assault on a key ISIS position. Unfortunately, an ISIS suicide bomber outflanked the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, killing a whole unit, with Colonel Mohamed Bughafir, commander of a top special forces unit, dying during the withdrawal. His death constitutes a loss of leadership and a blow to the existing model of anti-ISIS cooperation built between local army forces and moderate Islamist militias. Without a real coalition of moderate Misratans, Federalists, elements of the LNA not wedded to Haftar's polarizing policies, and a slew of non-jihadist Islamist militias all working together against ISIS, any efforts to dislodge the group or to forge a new political process are bound to fail.

Aerial intervention may seem to Francois Hollande and Barack Obama like the smart way to combine domestic imperatives with foreign policy goals. The presidents' optimistic thought process must go as follows: If a few drone strikes could gradually wipe out key leaders and demoralize the adversarial organization while our Libyan allies strengthened and mopped up, then victory could be progressively achieved. But all evidence suggests the contrary. Haven't results in Iraq and Syria already showed the naiveté of these assumptions, exposing that ISIS can outlive the aerial incursions that play into its millennial recruitment strategy and simultaneously diminish local forces' motivation to take risks to tackle the group?

Our militia "allies" in Libya are even less reliable, motivated and organized than the Iraqi army—if such a fighting force can be imagined. Taking out ISIS leaders may cause the organization temporary confusion, but it has already put down firm roots in Sirte—and just as Obama underestimated ISIS's grip on Northern Iraq, he may be on the verge of repeating the error in Libya.

Simply wishing for ISIS's quick demise also ignores the intractable question of Libya's chaotic political reality which constitutes the group's oxygen. Libya remains divided between two rival pseudo-governments, neither of which possesses legal legitimacy. Each derives its partial power from fragile local alliances, and neither is able to provide security for its own territory—let alone the entire country.

Uniting Libyans around a bottom-up political process and in an anti-ISIS military collation through a broad based international conference as proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is the only plausible way forward. Only once that structure is in place should the West consider offering aerial support. Unilaterally bombing ISIS commanders inhibits this process as it exacerbates tensions between pro-Western and anti-Western factions and divorces them both of the responsibility of addressing Libya's problems. Despite the knee-jerk reaction in the White House and at the Élysée Palace to hunt down ISIS in Libya, Western actors need to pay attention to indigenous political processes in the wake of the U.N.'s failure and questionable neutrality.

If anything resembling stability in Libya is the goal, we must not only facilitate cooperation through carrots but also deploy sticks, such as sanctions and denying sovereignty to all Libyan entities, until a genuine unity government emerges.

The international community should create real incentives for militia commanders to perceive their stake in a stable, legitimately governed Libya. The pragmatic path is slower and less glamorous than blowing some jihadi commanders to smithereens, but sowing the seeds of cooperation and motivating Libyans to take hold of their own destiny is the only way forward.

Jason Pack is president of and an affiliated analyst at Risk Intelligence.

Andrea Brody-Barre is a doctoral candidate in political sociology at Cambridge University and VP of research at