Paul Pillar

The Terrorist Trifecta in Libya

The military intervention in Libya continues to be bad news for counterterrorism, in multiple respects. Perhaps most directly but not necessarily most importantly is the opportunity for Libyan extremists to make inroads within their own country, amid political vacuums and overall turmoil. Although the Transitional National Council has established itself sufficiently and said enough reassuring things to win recognition from the United States, uncertainty abounds about who and what lurks on the anti-Qaddafi side of the Libyan civil war. The uncertainty is especially worrying given the disproportionate representation of Libyans from the rebellious eastern part of the country in the ranks of transnational terrorists. And this at a time when Qaddafi's regime, which had been the principal partner of the United States in keeping tabs on those Libyan terrorists, is of course no longer partnering.

Then there are the demonstration effects of the events in Libya—the lessons those outside the country are drawing. These include the confirmation that, in the eyes of many Muslims, the Western intervention gives to the extremist narrative about how the West uses military force with abandon in ways that inflict casualties and damage on Muslims. Most important, the demonstration effects include the lessons that other regimes have been drawing. Given that the ruler the intervention is intended to topple gave up terrorism (and his unconventional weapons programs) in an agreement with the United States and Britain eight years ago, the very strong lesson to other regimes (as I have discussed earlier and Dov Zakheim recently reminded us in these spaces) is that the word of the United States is not to be trusted and the regimes would be foolish to agree to give up terrorism or weapons of mass destruction or anything else.

Now there is a third dimension of the bad counterterrorist news coming out of Libya, which is the dispersal of terrorist-friendly materiel. Bunkers full of man-portable air defense missiles, or MANPADS, that were lost to government control have been looted, and unknown numbers of the weapons have made it outside Libya to destinations similarly unknown. MANPADS have long been one of the most worrisome forms of conventional ordnance from a counterterrorist point of view, because of the potential to use them against civilian aircraft. It was because of this worry that the United States went to extraordinary lengths after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to try to retrieve or account for the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that it had provided the Afghan mujahedin. It looks like terrorists with thoughts of shooting down airliners have a new source of supply.

There are multiple reasons the intervention to try to oust Qaddafi, and the intensification of the Libyan civil war that the intervention entailed, was a mistake. The blows that have been struck against counterterrorism are among them.