Paul Pillar

Whack-a-Terrorist in Libya

The “next front against Islamic State,” as a headline in The Economist puts it, appears to be Libya. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, had talks last month with his French counterpart with an eye toward taking “decisive military action” against ISIS. Regardless of how far such planning may or may not have come already, it is not surprising to hear such talk, given that ISIS reportedly has established as large a presence in Libya—a real, material presence, and not just one defined in terms of expressions of sympathy or allegiance—as it has anywhere outside of Iraq and Syria. Opening up a real military front against it with Western armed forces might seem to be an appropriate going to where the action is, but it also would perpetuate a fundamentally flawed conception of counterterrorism as revolving around military offensives against whatever presence on the ground has been established by whatever radical group currently worries us the most.

This conception embodies the fallacy that control of a patch of distant real estate is to be equated with threats of terrorist attacks against the West and especially the United States. Even if the connection between distant real estate and proximate terrorism were greater than it really is, there is the further common but also fallacious corollary that whatever particular patch has most recently caught our attention is somehow more significant than other patches, including ones that have not yet come into being or gotten headlines as well as ones that have. The case of ISIS in Libya ought itself to demonstrate the misguided nature of this corollary, showing as it does that the ISIS enclave in Iraq and Syria is not really as special in the world of counterterrorism or even in the world of ISIS as it has generally been regarded for most of the last couple of years. Similarly, the establishment of that prominent enclave belies the previously presumed special nature of the redoubt in Afghanistan of the Al-Qaeda group from which ISIS broke away. Other Al-Qaeda off-shoots, notably the one in Yemen, demonstrate the same thing.

The result is a game of whack-a-mole spanning multiple unstable foreign countries. The game is potentially endless, given that there is no shortage of such countries. The game is even worse than classic versions of whack-a-mole in that the perceived trouble spots seem to be additive rather than a matter of one substituting for another. Our concern with Syria and Iraq has not eliminated our concern about Afghanistan. Jumping into Libya would not eliminate our concern about Syria and Iraq. This pattern is partly testimony to the counterproductive side of militarized counterterrorism, in which antagonism against foreign forces and the collateral damage they cause tend to breed more extremists and add credibility to the messaging of the group being targeted.

The underlying problem in a place such as post-Qadhafi Libya is a lack of good governance or of any governance. Inadequate governance has multiple bad effects, including the sort of chaos that violent extremists exploit. Libya does not have a governance problem because ISIS is there; ISIS is there because Libya has a severe governance problem. Yet another fallacy in common thinking about counterterrorism is that whacking the offending group is progress. It is not, if what is left after the whacking is just more of the inadequate governance that led to the group establishing its presence there in the first place.

The prospects for creating a sound, strong, and credible authority in Libya any time soon remain very weak. The spectacle of competing coalitions in the western and eastern portions of the country persists—and that does not even count some of the other smaller power centers. The progress of the UN-sponsored reconciliation process has been so slow and meager that the slightest advance gets cheered—most recently, agreement by some but not all members of an interim collective presidency on the membership of a proposed unity government. An anti-ISIS armed intervention in this situation would be without effective local coordination and probably would introduce the moral hazard of the competing Libyan factions feeling that much freer to continue the quarrels among themselves rather than doing more against ISIS.

The whole sequence of successive armed interventions is all the more depressing when one thinks about how the process not only has failed to kill the terrorist mole but has given it life. This was especially true, of course, of the war of choice in Iraq, which gave rise to the group that we now know as ISIS. Libya was different in that an uprising was already taking place and the intervention was more a European-promoted project than an American one. But otherwise the result is parallel. In knocking off another dictator whom everyone loved to loathe, the intervention killed off a ruler who had, through a negotiated agreement, not only gotten out of his previous involvement in international terrorism but had begun to cooperate effectively against radical Islamist terrorists. Now look at what we have in his place.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to the National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.