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Next week, Italy will host an international conference intended to finally bring Libya’s bloody seven-year conflict toward resolution. Since the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, successive US administrations have watched Libya’s continuing collapse, believing that the country’s unraveling threatens only Europe. This is a mistake.
Qaddafi’s fall left much of Libya ungoverned or controlled by militias, criminal gangs, and terrorists like ISIS. The state’s breakdown opened the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of migrants, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa, perilously attempting to reach the Mediterranean for the dangerous crossing to Europe. Today, the ancient smuggling networks and routes that cross Libya’s southern border have become big business for human traffickers and modern-day slave traders.
ISIS and al Qaeda profit directly from engaging in, and taxing, illegal activities like human trafficking and smuggling — activities which have been fueling Libya’s political and security crisis, helping to spawn terrorist threats and spreading instability across northern Africa. And Russia, which is building influence in Libya, has an opportunity to exploit the migrant crisis there. Both Russia and Turkey have done so in Syria, working through proxies to regulate the flow of migrants into Europe and creating a point of leverage against European governments.
A foothold for two major terror groups threatening the US homeland, and a valuable geostrategic position for Russia, ought to be of obvious concern to the United States. But neither the current nor the previous administration appear to have noticed. Blame Benghazi. Following the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012, Congress and successive administrations have shied away from all involvement in Libya beyond a limited counterterrorism policy. The crisis is seen as a regional problem to be resolved by Europeans who are most affected by the influx of undocumented migrants. This overlooks the direct threats to US national security interests posed by the influx of migrants.
Current US policy toward Libya also assumes that the current UN-led political reconciliation process will establish a central governing authority, which will in turn eradicate the symptoms of political dysfunction, irregular migration and terrorism among them. Migration, however, is part of a larger system of corruption and criminality that is driving the conflict. This lawlessness has allowed people with guns — with real power — to resist any political resolution that would disrupt their highly profitable businesses.
Breaking this cycle of instability is critical. Today, Libya is a fertile environment for terrorists like ISIS and al Qaeda to metastasize and launch attacks against US interests in the region and abroad. While US military interventions have stopped groups like ISIS and al Qaeda from controlling major cities and the country’s infrastructure, they have not eliminated the threat. ISIS is resurging in central Libya just two years after a US-backed operation ousted the group from the city of Sirte. The United Nations envoy to Libya recently warned that ISIS’s “presence and operation in Libya are only spreading . . . Libya may become a shelter for terrorist groups of all persuasions.” In short, military interventions have little impact long-term, and diplomatic avenues are stalled.
France and Italy recognize correctly that managing the irregular migration crisis is key to resolving the Libya conflict, but their interventions often work at cross-purposes. Their respective support of rival militia factions and their uncoordinated attempts at high-level peace negotiations only serve to undermine each other and prolong the conflict. Italy’s alliance with Libyan militias has successfully decreased the flow of migrants crossing to reach the Mediterranean, but it has also empowered militias that weaken Libya’s fledgling central government. In addition, the presence of an estimated 670,000 migrants in Libya — almost 12.5 percent of the total Libyan population — has been fueling social tensions and making conflict resolution even more complex.
The US administration is consumed with other foreign and domestic challenges and is more than happy to cede management of the Libya problem to Europe. But the result will be a new tool in Vladimir Putin’s arsenal and a vital base of operations for both ISIS and al Qaeda. The only answer is the use of American leadership to end international infighting, limited intervention to stabilize key Libyan cities, additional sanctions targeting human traffickers, and assistance programs that stem the tide of humans flowing into Libya. This is not only a humanitarian imperative; it’s a national security imperative.
Emily Estelle is a senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Thomas M. Hill is a senior program officer for North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. This article has been cross-posted with the United States Institute of Peace.
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