Since 2014 the terrorist group Daesh, or ISIS, has come under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, prompting its members to encroach more and more onto Libyan territory with hopes of reviving themselves through a new branch in Libya. The disparate governing bodies that characterize my country’s continuously dissolving political situation must come together to face this looming threat. This means getting behind the UN-backed unity government, or the Government of National Accord (GNA), for good.
The Daesh threat in Libya isn’t just about Libya. If the brutal terrorist group advances in the region, its successes will pose further problems for the West, since Libya is practically Europe’s backyard. A unified Libyan military operating under a single command structure presents the best chance for the country to permanently weaken Daesh’s regional presence. This can’t happen if the Libyan parliament in Tobruk doesn’t endorse the GNA (thus reconciling with their Tripoli rivals), which represents the collective compromise of Libya’s rival factions. Politicians and generals who’d rather cling on to the power they’ve accrued in Libya’s post-revolutionary chaos must either get with this program or get out of the way.
Now’s not the time for more political bickering. The Libyan people are tired of their country’s protracted transition process, and the threat of Daesh isn’t making things any easier. What we’re seeing now isn’t a united country that has the capability of containing a foreign threat. Instead, rival armed groups and political factions are using the presence of a major terrorist group in Libya as an excuse to wage turf wars against their rivals. Meanwhile, Daesh continues to reign with terror in the town of Sirte, where it’s executed over 40 innocent people since February, and plans further expansion throughout Libya. The GNA now, more than ever, must fulfil its mandate as Libya’s legitimate ruling body to fight against ISIS and provide Libyans with humanitarian relief, which will help it gain legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. This domestic effort must be carried out in conjunction with the anti-ISIS campaigns.
But instead of referring to Daesh as terrorists, which is what they are, Libya’s rival governing bodies would rather slap the label on their political rivals. This creates confusion, among other things, to the point where anti-Daesh armed groups have been called “terrorists” by the international community, which, despite its genuine willingness to help Libya, still has a tough time distinguishing between certain players on the ground. Many armed groups and youth brigades that fought against Col. Mouammar Ghaddafi’s forces in the 2011 revolution continue to roam Libya. They should be incorporated into a single military structure to fight against Daesh, and not marginalized or criminalized for operating outside of official institutional structures in a chaotic Libya.
The GNA must play a central role in harnessing Libya’s armed forces against a single opponent, which means redirecting the firepower of political rivals by establishing a ceasefire, particularly in Benghazi, where the security situation is nothing short of crippling. Armed groups loyal to Tobruk or Tripoli must be persuaded to stop fighting against each other. They must be persuaded to not use the ISIS threat as a way to marginalize their rivals by force, thus gaining their political patrons more ground in Libya’s protracted transitional process.
The international community must also play its role, of course. It should start by making sure that regional powers don’t use Libya’s civil unrest as a proxy conflict to advance their own agendas. It also means that the West should provide Libya with logistical aid and armaments, as long as it doesn’t deploy troops on Libyan soil. Libyans will see this as a foreign encroachment upon their national sovereignty, which will only help to widen the trust gap between citizens and the government. A stable Libya poses the biggest threat to Daesh, which, as we’ve seen elsewhere in the region, thrives off of political chaos and rivalry. The UN has already taken an important step forward by helping birth the GNA unity government, but the international community must continue to assist Libya on its road to unity.
A failure to do so will result in a failed state that Daesh will use to incubate itself in order to wage more global terrorism. This isn’t just a disaster for Libya or the region, but for the whole world.