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George W. Bush destroyed the state and army of Iraq, but it was located within a constellation of relatively powerful and capable states interested in some form of stability or control. The United States also poured massive doses of money and power into Iraq in an attempt to influence its outcomes.
However, when the US pitched in to “lead from behind” and destroy the Libyan state at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urging, even though Libya was surrounded by relatively vulnerable, at-risk states unable or unwilling to project power beyond their borders, the U.S. refused to go “Pottery Barn”, to use Colin Powell’s analogy, and fill the power vacuum in Libya with its own forces.
The United States did worse than just walk away. In a misguided and morally and intellectually lazy (my opinion!) gambit it tried to “export” its way out of the Libyan problem by supporting the migration of destabilizing elements, i.e. the Islamist fighters who had brought down Qaddafi, to another adventure in Syria. Now, with the Syrian project faltering despite 5 years of foreign-funded Islamist insurrection, Libya has emerged as a preferred destination not only for returning Libyan fighters, but also a growing population of transnational fighters from dozens of countries.
Security analysts are quietly flummoxed about the establishment of the Islamist fighter “colony” in Libya, because after three decades of cynically exploiting Islamist fighters as a deniable asset against the Soviet Union and uncooperative secular regimes, the number of transnational Islamist fighters has roughly quintupled. Fact is, the number probably more than doubled in the last couple years alone, thanks to the competing recruitment efforts of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and ISIS in the Syria/Iraq theater.
The inability to stop the growth in foreign fighters in the old-fashioned way by killing them in various battlefields is probably behind the well-funded US interest in the seemingly bizarre, ineffectual, and rather desperate anti-recruitment propaganda/psyops/Twitter wars blanketing the Internet, as well as the announcement that Hollywood has enlisted in the “anti-ISIS” struggle.
Dealing with the transnational fighter migration to Libya is kinda tough, you know, because we destroyed the Libyan state & army, didn’t replace those power factors with our own troops, nobody else has the juice to restore order, and so the primary military forces are the Islamist militias themselves. And Libya is surrounded by shaky states that offer attractive secondary refuge/employment opportunities for Islamist militias whether or not the US/NATO campaign to restore a semblance of national authority in Libya through bombing/proxies/stern rhetoric succeeds.
This cavalier disregard for the consequences of the Libyan war indicates that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State with an army of wonk and advisors and spooks, did not grasp one of the essential lessons of the Iraq invasion and its trillion-dollar aftermath. Or she anticipated the outcome and didn’t care which, in terms of her brief to act as steward of America’s interests, is probably worse.
Heckuva job, Hillary.
But Job One is dealing with an even more important problem: the threat the Libya fiasco might pose to Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations.
In an apparent effort to help Hillary Clinton shed the signature incubus of her tenure as Secretary of State, the New York Times ran a two-parter which rather generously slotted the Libya disaster into the “we meant well” category. Secretary Clinton didn’t agree to an interview for the story but a key foreign policy advisor at the time and, I imagine, helpful surrogate for the purposes of this piece, Anne-Marie Slaughter, contributed the observation that Clinton was guilty of the sin of “getting caught trying” i.e. trying to accomplish great things but coming up short.
I have a lot of problems with this framing and the piece in general, to put it mildly. I think a good title reflecting its basic theme would be “White World’s Failed Crusade in Libya: How Silly and Shortsighted Browns Screwed Up the Nice Democracy NATO and the U.S. Tried to Give Them”. However, my main gripe is that it completely and, I suspect, intentionally disregards the context of the Libyan adventure: a disastrous U.S. alliance with the Gulf autocracies intent on a) nailing Gaddafi and b) responding to the challenge of the Arab Spring with a Sunni counterrevolution reliant on Islamist fighters instead of “boots on the ground”.
But let’s leave that question to the philosophers and consider an interesting and dire consequence of the Libyan campaign: how the US not only helped created a failed state haven for Islamist fighters but tried to export its problem to Syria and only made matters much much worse.
Amazingly, US foreign policy is still hooked on irregular Islamist fighters–to the extent of cooperating with al-Qaeda after 9/11 (please read this before judging if I’m engaging in hyperbole)– even as Islamist fighters continue to spread death and chaos around the world. I guess in think tank land it’s a problem that “we’ll get right the next time” so “let’s make sure there’s a next time”.
However, it turns out that Islamic fighters are a bit like the national debt. They’re almost impossible to retire, and the easiest solution is to roll them over into another conflict and, in the process, create more Islamic fighters.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason Islamist fighters have wreaked havoc all over the Eastern Hemisphere in the last quarter century is their patrons can’t figure out any endgame for them other than shipping them off to another conflict.
Since we shrink from overtly backing these groups, we never feel obligated to address this issue, at least in public.
But it’s clear neither hosts nor patrons of jihadi fighters want them to hang around once they’ve outlived their usefulness; “reprogramming” them as docile citizens of their country of origin doesn’t work very well; and the easy solution is to kick the can down the road i.e. send the fighters off to some other convenient conflict. Saudi Arabia seems addicted to this formula and is always looking forward to a jihad opportunity for cranky militants who might otherwise target its incompetent autocracy.
And maybe not just Saudi Arabia, as this interesting perspective on how the Russian Federation may have addressed its disgruntled Dagestani problem:
Why do the intelligence services of many countries including Russia not stop people who go join IS? How did Nadir abu Khalid [a charismatic preacher tracked by the security services] get to IS?…Look at Dagestan. Before our mosques were full of people and lessons were conducted by people like Nadir…People flocked to Islam, constantly learned and the infidels were in a panic and did not know what do to. And what now? All gone, no lessons, there are almost no calls, at the pulpits there are only “peaceful” types…
And for Turkey, it muddles along in a state of barely concealed anxiety about its “chickens”—the thousands of fighters it allegedly funded and imported into Syria—coming home to roost as the fortunes of the twin insurrections in Iraq and Syria wither under a combined Russian, Syrian, Hezbollah, Iraqi, and Iranian assault leavened with some Western airstrikes.
And, make no mistake, foreign fighters are on the move.
Torn from the headlines, here’s General Breedlove, the NATO honcho,addressing the flows out of Syria on March 1:
In that latter category, foreign fighters, some of them were there and are returning. What worries, I think, the nations is that these foreign fighters return home and then, if — and then in a situation where there are no jobs or no way to address their desires and their approach to life, then they might use their skills in a bad way.
But criminality, terrorism and foreign fighters in there. The numbers, recently I’ve seen reported, are numbers I had not seen in the past, but some are reporting now that they believe as many as 9,000 fighters have gone and as much as 1,500 fighters have returned back to Europe. That’s not our numbers, but that’s the numbers I’m seeing widely reported.
In my opinion, the key perspective on the Islamist militant migration problem is not scary browns menacing Europe (or Breedlove’s efforts to spin the flood of refugees and fighters out of Syria and Iraq as a Russian attack on NATO members); it’s the creation of a tag-team dynamic between various terrorist battlefields and their core, the ultimate terrorist safe haven that has emerged in Libya.
Libya serves this function because the United States not only destroyed the secular, hostile-to-Islamists government; it went the extra mile to empower Islamists both by arming them during the anti-Qaddafi insurrection and by then declining to occupy Libya and slug it out with the locals as the US military did in Iraq post 2003.
Result: a failed state with few effective local or foreign institutions capable of displacing Islamist fighters.
The problem appears to have been exacerbated instead of resolved by a makework solution: exporting Libyan fighters out of country to conduct generously-compensated mayhem in Syria.
In my opinion, Libyan Islamist fighters—and the catastrophically failed scheme to dump them in Syria–are the genuine skeleton in Hillary Clinton’s closet.
Qaddafi was no friend of Libyan Islamists and not a few of them became radicalized fighters who fought all over Asia until the Libya regime change campaign provided a local outlet for their energies. They formed the core force, supported by US/NATO/GCC air and special operations forces, which overthrew Gaddafi.
However, relations between key Islamist commanders and the United States were relatively fraught.
During the brief rapprochement between Qaddafi’s Libya and the West, the US and UK had helpfully renditioned some key Libyan Islamists from overseas havens into the hands of Qaddafi; these leaders were subsequently released by Saif Qaddafi as part of a conciliation process that turned out to be, to say the least, ineffective. The released detainees were promptly and generously patronized by Gulf sponsors and received money, arms, and training that were critical to the overthrow of Qaddafi. They might have been enthusiastic anti-Qaddafi assets, but by no stretch of the imagination could they be considered tractable US proxies in the post-Qaddafi period.
Notably, after the deposition of Qaddafi in 2011, both Libyan fighters and leaders found their way to Syria in bulk. Solidarity with Sunni Islam against another apostate potentate undoubtedly played a role, but the United States was apparently anxious to give the US-backed civilian government of Mustafa Abdul Jalil some breathing space.
Abdul Hakim Belhadj, one of the renditioned Islamists, a veteran commander who received planeloads of aid from Qatar, whose Tripoli Brigade had broken through to the capital, occupied it, and administered it, and hoped to become Minister of Defense in the new order, was instead encouraged to take his talents to Syria—via Turkey on a ship with 400 tons of munitions. By early 2012, the US and GCC had responded to the collapse of the local Syrian democratic revolution by turning unambiguously to a strategy of foreign-supported insurrection using imported Islamist muscle and supplying them in part through the Libya ratline described by Seymour Hersh.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was regarded as the cleverest of clever tricks: channeling Libyan fighters to Syria where they would become Assad’s headache instead of our headache: two birds with one stone!
Libyan fighters established a significant presence in Syria, providing training to inexperienced locals as well as serving as a fighting force eventually organized as the Katibat al-Battar brigade. The brigade provided a home for a variety of European militants (the Libyan dialect is intelligible to the European descendants of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants who form the backbone of the radical Islamic groups in France and Belgium). Its Euro-alumni formed the core of the group that perpetrated the Paris outrage in November 2015.
How’s that for blowback?
Understandably, the idea that the Paris attackers were nurtured by the same bunch we used to overthrow Gaddafi and then shipped to Syria in a clever little trick is a little too much bitter moral culpability to sweeten the West’s morning café au lait, so the Libyan angle is downplayed to emphasize the role of big bad ISIS to an almost ludicrous degree.
For that matter, the assault on the Benghazi US government annex that killed Ambassador Stephens is also unconvincingly dismissed as one of those inexplicable outbursts in Libya’s Wild East implicating an “eccentric, malcontent” Islamist and a stupid movie. The whole incident feels a bit different—and demands a more sophisticated explanation–when it’s characterized as violent dispute involving the US government and unknown interlocutors (just the fighters? What about their backers in the GCC or Turkey?) at a key MENA regional directorate and depot for export of fighters and material to Syria.
Maybe the US government knows the real reason why over 100 Islamist fighters stormed a CIA annex in a carefully planned operation—did somebody want to push the US and its qualms about delivering heavy weapons and MANPADs to Syria out of the way?– but doesn’t really want to talk about it.
Now the original fighters are coming home to Libya with their stature enhanced, their skills and connections upgraded, and their perspectives internationalized.
On top of homeward bound emigres, Libya can also attract a growing population of footloose transnational fighters brought into being by lavish Gulf and Turkish support of paramilitaries in Syria, and the fruits of an ISIS strategy to bulk up the Iraq/Syria Caliphate through the import of amateur enthusiasts as well as experienced fighters from around the world.
In addition, ISIS has taken advantage of the assets and opportunities offered by Libya to port its foreign-fighter driven insurrection model to the Libya platform and build a local operation from the ground up using freshly-recruited foreign fighters from places like Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.
Beyond the hopefully obvious point that the United States has completely lost the plot when it comes to controlling, managing, and directing the murderous energies of Islamist fighters, I have another observation about the unappreciated consequences of an unacknowledged multi-decade rolling clusterf*ck:
The number of transnational fighters is getting bigger. It used to be there was a hard core of a few hundred to a few thousand Islamist fighters who would show up to help the locals in their struggle against the infidel du jour; now it’s tens of thousands.
And I think the Western security wonks are quietly going apesh*t over the fact that the reservoir of foreign fighters keeps growing even as JSOC whacks ‘em retail and the military campaign in Syria & Iraq takes ‘em out wholesale.
As the Jamestown Institute noted:
A March 2015 report commissioned by the United Nations Security Council found that the number of foreign fighters for Islamist causes worldwide was higher than it has ever been and had soared by 71 percent between mid-2014 and March 2015. The study concluded that Syria and Iraq, by far the biggest destinations for foreign fighters, had become a “finishing school for extremists.”
I am indebted to a master’s thesis prepared by Colonel Dallas Shaw, Libyan Foreign Fighters and Their Effects on the Libyan Revolution for some historical context.
Apparently, a total of perhaps 25-30,000 Arab fighters cycled through Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet war, with perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 present at any one time.
They mainly came from seven countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco. In Afghanistan, they were a small part of big local effort (perhaps as many as a quarter million mujahedeen supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign funding).
Colonel Shaw endorses the theory that foreign fighters have the biggest impact when they return to their home countries, which is, of course bad news for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco.
Therefore, it was something of a relief in the homelands, I expect, when someArab veterans of Aghanistan found their way to Chechnya, which was considered to be a potential replay of Afghanistan, i.e. defending a Muslim polity from Russian oppression.
Even a small number of hardened fighters can make a big difference. Al Qaeda’s Ibn al-Khattab took over effective control of the Chechen insurrection in the early part of this century with less than 1000 experienced and effectively led Arab fighters who had learned the ropes in Afghanistan. In the process, al Qaeda’s veterans trained a bunch of Chechen fighters.
And guess what! When the Chechnya/Dagestan effort foundered under a remorseless Russian assault, a cadre of Chechen fighters became available to the international jihadi effort. Chechen fighters allegedly went as far afield as Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. By 2005, Chechen fighters were unambiguously established among forces fighting the US occupation in Iraq.
In a graphic illustration of the multi-conflict continuity of the Islamist fighter culture, by 2014 Chechens were “one of the four pillars of ISIS”, and a Chechen, Tarkhan Batirashvili,, a.k.a.. “Omar al-Shishani” or “Omar the Chechen” had been designated as the military commander of ISIS.
In other words, a fighter in a second-generation conflict, Chechnya, which had been seeded by the first generation of fighters out of Afghanistan, was now not only fighting in but leading a third-generation conflict in Iraq/Syria.
In 2005, Andrew Cordesmann and Nawaf Obaid estimated there were 3000 foreign fighters opposing the US occupation in Iraq, perhaps 4-10% of the total force.
And what’s going on today?
In all, between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria, the Soufan Group said, compared with a figure of about 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria when it last published a similar study in June 2014.
The Soufan Group added that between 20 and 30% of foreign fighters were returning to their home countries, creating major challenges for domestic security agencies as Isis in particular looks to carry out an increasing number of attacks overseas.
So, despite the JSOC, air strike, and drone-powered campaign to, depending on your perspective, either rip out terrorism at its roots or retire embarrassing assets, I’m guesstimating here, the number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq today are four to five times as many as were present at any single time in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet effort, or in Iraq during the campaign against the US.
That’s a lot of fighters, even assuming there’s a large percentage of hapless cannon fodder, which is apparently ISIS’ preferred use for the inexperienced enthusiasts it recruits wholesale through local scouts and the Internet, as these purported recollections of a disgruntled Dagestani jihadi on the Chechens in Syria website indicate.
And note, when Breedlove talks about fighters leaving Syria, they aren’t necessarily leaving in body bags. Globally, we’re not seeing a measurable reduction in the number of Islamist fighters. They’re just going home or, if they can’t go home, they’re ending up in other more hospitable jurisdictions.
The U.S. now estimates that the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria has decreased to between 19,000 and 25,000 resulting from battlefield deaths and a reduced flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Yet, as ISIS numbers have been reduced in Iraq and Syria, they have increased in Libya to 5,000 where ISIS has seen an increased flow of foreign fighters, U.S. officials said today.
The number of ISIS fighters in Libya was previously estimated at 2,000 to 3,000, the official said, speculating that there might be a correlation between the new ISIS estimates in Iraq/Syria and Libya as it’s getting harder for foreign fighters to get into Syria and that they may be diverting to Libya as a result.
Libyan fighters allied with ISIS already went back to Libya to establish a beachhead for the organization a couple years ago in the Islamists’ stomping grounds of Benghazi and Derna. Now that things in Syria and Iraq are, to put it mildly, going rather poorly for Islamist fighters, more of them are headed off to Libya, allegedly with assistance from Turkey and the Gulf States.
It’s not just footsoldiers looking for a Libyan hidey-hole.
On February 11, 2016, the Daily Mail announced that Omar al-Shishani, the Chechen in charge of ISIS’ military operations, had apparently arrived in Libya in a 14 car convoy. So he can carry on the Afghan/Chechen/Iraq & Syria tradition to a new generation of conflicts in North Africa!
And not only that, Abdelhakim Belhadj—the strongman we shipped to Syria because he was too much of a handful for the civilian government in Tripoli–is back! Belhadj is a military mainstay of the General National Congress (GNC) the faction holding down the Tripoli end of a pretty much de facto partitioned Libya.
In more news of the burgeoning Libya Islamist franchise, Al Jazeera, which indefatigably stooged for Qatar-backed Islamists in Libya during the anti-Qaddafi operation, reported that Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte is now in the hands of ISIS, specifically in the hands of foreign fighters predominantly from North Africa. So it looks like ISIS has ported its “recruit in bulk” strategy for foreign fighters out of Syria and into the more favorable environment of Libya.
America’s swing at neutralizing Libyan militants through a “fight abroad” program in Syria looks like a spectacular screwup.
Clearly, with the US & NATO apparently short both on will and capable proxies, let alone an effective Libyan army, and without an effective and anxious neighbor like Iran (Egypt apparently unwilling or unable to try to set things right), Libya has emerged as a haven for Islamist fighters.
Instead of disappearing into the maw of the Syrian conflict, our Libyan Islamist proxies are coming home, and bringing a lot of new buddies to operate in the Libyan chaos that was somehow supposed to get fixed while they were gone.
The US botched execution of two simultaneous regime change gambits has fostered the creation of a durable colony of Islamist fighters in what used to be Libya, one that looks uniquely dangerous and difficult for the US to contain or eradicate.
Libya, thanks to the grim dynamics of Islamic insurgency, Gulf cupidity, and Western malign neglect, has become established as the key host and supplier and resupplier and recruiter of transnational fighters and the numbers are increasing. It’s not just a full circle for Hillary Clinton, it’s an escalating spiral, one that she probably doesn’t feel like celebrating.
The US and NATO are anxiously trying to come up with a plan to neutralize Islamist fighters in Libya, without explaining to the public or itself how it’s going to do that with the complete absence of a national government and functioning army and without putting foreign boots on the ground—and avoid admitting that the deposition of Qaddafi created a worse crisis than the one we were allegedly trying to resolve.
But the consequences of this particular fiasco are more than the usual litany of US failure, mismanagement of murderous proxies, well-concealed embarrassment, and massive loss of local life that blots the US Middle East copybook like a trail of blood spatter.
In a piece of bad luck that Secretary Clinton perhaps didn’t consider while blithely imploding Libya, Libya happens to be in a neighborhood of rickety regimes ill-equipped to handle a failed state swarming with professional Islamist militants in their midst.
Nowadays Libya-wise we get maps that look like this as the militants, conveniently and centrally located in the heart of Muslim Africa, not only pitch in to fight the civil war against Tripoli-based Islamists and the Qaddafi-regime retreads that the US is now vainly hoping will restore order, but also pursue mischief in North Africa:
Let’s number some interesting consequences that conventional reporting/think tankers appear rather loath to confront, largely because the problem grew out of the morally and strategically lazy reliance on arm’s length Islamist fighters to do the geopolitical dirty work from Afghanistan onward—and the inability to permanently retire them.
First, there is a sizable cadre of transnational Islamist fighters.
Second, the cadre appears to get bigger with every conflict.
Third, the disruption this cadre causes looks to become bigger and bigger as it feeds on fresh conflicts.
Fourth, thanks to the irresponsible decision to go regime change on the cheap simultaneously in Libya and Syria using Islamist assets, we seem to have a deadly dynamic where the Islamists can trade off between Middle Eastern and North African havens/battlegrounds. Containment is a fantasy; we are looking at chasing militants over multiple fronts in a number of failed/failing/distressed states.
Fifth, the will is lacking to engage in a truly ugly no holds barred hemispheric war to eradicate this cadre. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got sponsors quite rightly terrified that their proxies will come home and turn on them (and probably covertly throwing money at them to keep them happy and their activities directed elsewhere); on the other, you’ve got a global hegemon loath to put “boots on the ground”.
Sixth, an understandable instinct is to kick the can down the road, i.e. hope/help the fighters get distracted by some remote conflict, even though it feeds the beast and lets the problem grow bigger.
Kicking the can into Libya is the worst possible strategy if anybody’s serious about trying to eliminate Islamist fighters as a global security priority. Who’s gonna slug it out on behalf of the secular/national forces? General Haftar, currently running some regime in Tobruk with one foot in Egypt? The GCC, hopelessly bogged down in Yemen? The US, EU, and NATO, who want to pretend Libya is roadkill in the rear view mirror and not a T. Rex of Islamist fighters gaining on the West?
I have a terrible feeling that Muslim Africa is the next region to get mauled. The inevitable strategic brainwave is to quietly bomb & drone the cr*p out of Libya, but even if the Islamist fighters are put on the defensive, they’ll just slop over into a neighboring vulnerable at risk-state. Libya borders on six such states. That might be too big a mess even for Africom to want to dip its boot in.
I wonder if US strategists appreciate the fact that it was only thanks to the resolve, unity, and national capacity of Iran that the heart of the Middle East is experiencing even a modicum of stabilization after two US-sponsored sh*t shows. Unfortunately, there’s no Iran down by Libya, there’s just Egypt. Good luck with that.
Seventh, no need to wonder why PRC is paranoid about Xinjiang. I’m sure there are natsec geniuses in a number of Western capitals (I’ll include Ankara in the category) who think pumping some fighters—including Uyghur formations Erdogan had thoughtfully inserted into northern Syria–into Afpak/Central Asia would be the best way to ease their local pressure & put some heat on the PRC. The PRC’s response will be to pave the entire AR if necessary to contain the problem, instead of letting it spin out of control as the US did in MENA. Anybody, whether of the cynical realist, romantic nationalist, Islamist enthusiast, or sentimental people-gotta-be free persuasion, who yearns for an Islamist-tinged rebellion in Xinjiang is criminally irresponsible. In my opinion.
We talk about the litany of US failure in Iraq under George W. Bush as a lost decade of catastrophe, with good reason.
But more and more it looks like the US adventure in Libya was a disaster with even more dire global consequences. It not only ruined that country; it turned Islamist fighters into a metastasizing transnational problem that will destabilize Africa and torment the world for at least another decade.
I don’t know how actively the United States supported the export of Libyan fighters to Syria, and if and how much it wrung its hands as the GCC and Turkey ran the ratline. It appears that the Obama administration did not share Turkey and the GCC’s enthusiasm for inflating the number of local and foreign forces inside Syria and Iraq as a recipe for victory. Judging by news reports, ISIS came up with the idea of mass recruiting of low quality jihadi wannabes in bulk on its own.
But as the movement of transnational Islamist fighters enters its fifth generation stage in North Africa, it looks like the key mistake was destroying the Libyan state, putting nothing in its place, and allowing it to be colonized by a growing number of Islamist fighters.
And Hillary owns that.