“Crises left to fester sometimes find their own way to the front burner.” Written on January 5, 2015, this sentence reflected my fear that starving Libya of high-profile international attention was increasingly risky. The beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by Islamic State (ISIS) extremists this week appears to have placed the situation in Libya front and center. An opportunity might emerge from this horror: Western governments appear sufficiently energized to place greater heft behind the UN effort to nudge Libya’s two rival governments toward cooperation.
Libyan-based extremists carrying out atrocities at home and fueling terrorism and instability among Libya’s neighbors are not new phenomena, though the nature of the killings and lower number of casualties have kept them from making the kind of impact seen from this week’s violence. A British man and a woman from New Zealand were shot on a Libyan beach in January 2014, and seven Egyptian Coptic Christians were shot execution style on a Libyan beach by extremists in February 2014. An ISIS affiliate in Derna videotaped the execution of an Egyptian man in a soccer field last August. And last month ISIS gunmen stormed Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel (where most foreign visitors stay), killing at least nine.
ISIS has not been Libya’s leading extremist group. That has been the al-Qa‘ida-affiliated Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL). Libya’s internationally recognized House of Representatives (HOR), based in Tobruk in the east, has battled ASL for months for control of Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi. Recently Libya’s small military under the HOR’s General Khalifa Hifter gained the upper hand, driving ASL and its extremist allies from 90 percent of Benghazi. So far, amidst the standoff between two governments and the welter of regional, local, or other extremist militias making Libya a patchwork quilt of control, ISIS has been a rather minor player.
UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon has soldiered on practically alone since early December, especially trying to bring Libya’s two rival governments together for talks toward a national unity government. The majority secular HOR, elected last June, attended all of Leon’s sessions, but the mainly Islamist former Libyan General National Congress (GNC) boycotted them. Agreeing to the GNC demand of shifting the venue from Geneva to Libya, both sides finally came together for the first time on February 11 in the western town of Ghadames.
Getting the two governments working together could make a difference. Between them, they dominate a lot of real estate—most of Libya’s coast. Together, they also have the potential to bring much of Libya’s crude back online. And even though the Tripoli-based GNC and the veteran “Libya Dawn” militia from Misrata behind it are Islamist, they have denounced ASL and other extremists as “terrorists.” If Hifter’s forces, Libya Dawn, and the crack HOR-allied Zintani militia south of Tripoli could take on extremist elements in most of northern Libya, ISIS would be in real trouble.
Dealing serious blows to ASL, ISIS, and associated extremists would ease pressure on Libya’s neighbors. The flow of ASL gunmen and bombers into Tunisia would abate. Eventually perhaps the activities of various extremist groups, including al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb operating out of southwestern Libya against Algeria, Mali, and Niger, could be curbed. Last year only robust French military intervention prevented Mali from being overrun by a collection of extremists and Malian separatists reinforced and supplied from southwestern Libya.
Egypt and Egyptians have been prime targets because of Egypt’s past airstrikes against ASL and GNC targets, along with Cairo’s open support for the HOR. A successful crackdown would reduce the movement of munitions into Egypt bound for ISIS’s Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis affiliate and Egypt proper, as well as stem attacks against Egyptians inside Libya.
To achieve meaningful closure between the HOR and GNC, however, Leon needs help. In a joint statement on February 17, the United States, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain rejected Egypt’s call for military intervention in favor of a “political resolution” in the form of a “national unity government.” As such, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and key senior Western officials must throw their full weight (and presence, which may well be needed) behind the talks to press Libya’s rival governments to sort out enough of their differences to form a common front. Many GNC and HOR officials know each other, worked together before, and could do so again.
Yet, there are grounds for caution. There are some militant elements on the edges of the GNC/Libya Dawn coalition. Unity talks with a focus on joint anti-extremist action hopefully would smoke out whether the GNC’s dissociation with and denunciation of extremists are genuine. The HOR also would have decisions to make. Although it has diligently attended UN talks, as the recognized Libyan government would the HOR accept ceding sufficient legitimacy to the GNC to permit the formation of a national unity government? And would General Hifter be accorded a post in such a government, would the GNC agree to his inclusion, and, if so, would Hifter try to exploit such a position to emerge as a potential national leader in his own right?
The Libyan crisis is spinning dangerously out of control and is directly threatening the security of its neighbors in North Africa and across the Mediterranean; it is also providing new ground for ISIS and other dangerous extremist groups. Despite dramatic developments in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine, the United States, Europe, and the international community must also put Libya back on the front burner of their policy attention.