The War Against Islamic State Has Jumped 1,500 Miles to Libya

First_demonstrations_calling_for_toppling_the_regime_in_Libya_(Bayda,_Libya,_2011-02-16)

Demonstrations in Libya, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

It appears a pending decision was made to expand the war against Islamic State (IS) to Libya, as the United States announced this morning that it conducted an air strike on a training camp near Sabratha, targeting Noureddine Chouchane, a.k.a. “Sabir,” and killing at least 40. The US has linked the militant to the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia last year, though it is not confirmed whether he was killed.

Since the air strike hit a farmhouse and killed dozens, it is not surprising that the US cannot confirm their target’s death (that is a lot of remains to sort through). But the US’s confusion over who it has killed is a problem. Similarly, The Washington Post recently reported that American officials are now unsure whether or not an airstrike targeting al-Qaida militant Mukhtar Belmokhtar last year was successful. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers, famously targeted accidentally in an airstrike in Libya himself, said it best:

“An aircraft, a pilot, put a guided munition very near to me on a piece of ground where I was standing that was unquestionably out of the Qaddafi forces’ hands, and then proceeded to brief the strike publicly as if it was a valid strike. They said things that were not true. They may have believed them. Either way, it’s a problem, right? It shows that they don’t know what they’re bombing in many instances, and they convince themselves that they do, which is an incredibly dangerous use of lethal power. And it just was extremely useful to see that and consider other things they may be saying to you on one story or another. Because there’s no question to me about what happened.”

The sad truth of the matter is that as the air war against IS expands, the US government does not always know who or what they are bombing. This makes it hard to justify these airstrikes, regardless of how good or bad the targets are. Unfortunately, without good human intelligence, it is difficult to understand the situation on the ground when your closest observer is a drone orbiting at 15,000 feet.

But the IS problem in Libya is not going away. IS controls at least a good 120 miles of territory and growing, 5,000-6,500 fighters, and has been launching a multi-front campaign on oil production centers that is unlikely to be defeated by local actors. None, including the Libyan government, are organized or strong enough.

“The Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure.”

Insurgencies and terrorist groups are most likely to be defeated via direct military action only if they are deftly struck relatively early in their genesis. As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, allowing IS to take significant amounts of territory and establish infrastructure has made them resilient to the 18 month old US-led bombing campaign against them.

With only one airstrike accomplished so far, it is too early to see how the US plans to fight in Libya. However, the Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure. I have not yet seen any studies showing that adding new countries to the extremely costly US bombing list has made Americans safer, yet this continues to be the counterterrorism status quo.

Advertisements

The Evolution of an Insurgent

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 12.22.06 PM

Islamic State commander, Hassan Aboud, from a YouTube video

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a piece by C.J. Chivers on the rise of Islamic State’s Hassan Aboud. Aboud was a cement hauler in 2011 before Syria’s revolution, but he was prepared. A combination of connections and training in 2005 in Iraq with Zarqawi’s AQI along with an apparently well equipped cache of supplies made him one of Syria’s top rebel commanders  in 2012. He attracted the attention of IS and made the choice to pledge bayat. Today’s he is another middle manager in IS whose brigade has likely fought in Aleppo, Kobani, Homs, and Palmyra.

Chiver’s piece is richly detailed for such a notoriously shadowing organization and I highly recommend it for anyone who is curious about the transformation of insurgents—in this case from cement hauler to emir in the Islamic State. Aboud’s story reminds me of a quote from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

“Behind the Black Flag: The Recruitment of an ISIS Killer” by C.J. Chivers