The United States and its allies barnstormed into Libya sugar-high on the prospect of building a democracy in the Arab world and amnesiac as to what happened the last time we tried to do that. Results were entirely predictable. Moammar Gaddafi was ousted from power, Libya became awash in chaos, and jihadists began hawking their wares. The country is currently torn between two competing governments, one Islamist and one relatively secular, with countless militias operating in between. A peace accord was signed in December, but implementation has been rocky.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend in Libya has been the rise of the Islamic State. Unhindered by American bombing, ISIS has made alarming progress across Libya, and earlier this week it won another victory. The Long War Journal reports:
The Islamic State’s so-called “province” in Libya has launched a new offensive and claims to have captured a town on the Mediterranean coast.
“The soldiers of the Khilafah [caliphate] managed to take complete control over the coastal city of Bin Jawad,” the Islamic State’s Wilayat Barqat (or province) said in a short statement released online earlier today. The “blessed operations come during the battle of Sheikh Abdul Mugirah al Qahtani (May Allah accept him), and all praise is due to Allah, master of the universe,” the statement continued.
In a concurrent operation, the “caliphate’s” fighters attacked the port town of Al Sidr, which is approximately 20 miles away from Bin Jawad and home to one of Libya’s largest oil ports. One or more suicide bombers may have initiated the assault after they struck guard positions with car bombs.
The Islamic State is stepping up its attacks and hitting Libya where it hurts: the petroleum industry, and specifically the so-called “oil crescent” along the north coast. Accordingly, ISIS shelled the lucrative town of Sidra on Wednesday, setting ablaze several oil storage tanks. The Wall Street Journal notes that the Libyan economy shrank by an astonishing 6 percent last year, meaning any further blow to the country’s resources will be intimately felt by its people. If you want to disrupt a peace accord, this is how you do it.
In addition to its petro ambitions in the east, the Islamic State has found fertile Libyan ground in the western district of Sirte. Moammar Gaddafi grew up here, and it was long a haven of support for the flamboyant dictator. After Gaddafi was killed, many of his former loyalists joined forces with ISIS and helped raise the black flag over Sirte last spring. It’s an eerily congruent replay of the mistakes we made in Iraq: deposing a dictator without a plan for the aftermath, yapping about freedom as jihadists move into the vacuum, scratching our heads as former regime loyalists turn extreme. And just as the violence in Iraq spilled over to Syria, Libya has become a major staging ground for North African terrorism. The gunman who slaughtered 38 tourists at a beach hotel in Tunisia last year was trained in Libya.
We were warned this would happen. As the U.S. and Europe reared up to bomb Libya, a frantic Gaddafi opened back channels to several Western leaders. One was former British prime minister Tony Blair who actually took a call from Gaddafi in the days before the invasion. According to recently released transcripts, Gaddafi said the following:
The story is simply this: an organisation has laid down sleeping cells in North Africa. Called the Al Qaida Organization in North Africa (Islamic Mahada?). They don’t use Arab words, they use Islamic. The sleeping cells in Libya are similar to dormant cells in America before 9/11. … They keep saying things like Mohammed is the profit (sic – should be “prophet”). Similar to Bin Laden. They are paving the way for him in North Africa.
Given the proliferation of ISIS and Salafist militias like Ansar al-Sharia inside Libya, can there be any doubt that Gaddafi was correct? And given that Gaddafi had long ago surrendered his weapons of mass destruction and joined the war on terror, is there any question that Libya would be better off today if we hadn’t overthrown him? Hillary Clinton likes to boast that the intervention in Libya, which she heartily supported, was an exercise in “smart power.” In retrospect, the only one who looks smart is the African dictator wearing a velvet sheet.