After Islamic State in Libya posted a video showing the beheading of 21 men reported to be Egyptian Christians, the government of Egypt has struck back.
Acting in concert with the recognized government of Libya (the Transitional National Council), in Tripoli, Egypt dispatched strike fighters on 16 February to bomb Islamic State positions and resources in the eastern port city of Derna (sometimes transliterated “Darnah”). Libyan planes are reported to have participated in the strikes.
Note: as this goes to post, I just heard Oliver North claim on Fox that Egypt requested targeting support from the U.S. for these strikes, and didn’t get it. I’m not sure which is worse: if we didn’t help because we didn’t have good enough intelligence to be of use, or if we didn’t help because the Obama administration judged it to not be in our interest to help.
At any rate. The IS presence in eastern Libya has been a growing security problem for both Egypt and the national Libyan government in Tripoli since last fall (see here as well). It has created ugly problems for Libyans locals, who have been treated to plenty of ISIS-style brutality in the months since, including summary beheadings, public lashings, and showy executions in soccer stadiums.
IS’s presence adds to the woes of the struggling Libyan oil industry, which itself is a source of instability for the central Mediterranean. Derna is one of the port cities with oil distribution infrastructure, but – as with Benghazi – its commercial-trade fortunes are subject to political and security concerns. For one thing, the government in Tripoli doesn’t want tribal rebels exporting Libyan national oil for profit to themselves. Tripoli also doesn’t want the eastern ports being used to smuggle guerrilla fighters and weaponry, under cover of the legitimate oil trade.
This is one aspect of the cesspool Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other Americans in Benghazi were dog-paddling in, back in September of 2012. It has only gotten worse in the two-odd years since. Alert readers may remember an incident with a tanker in January 2014, at which the Libyan navy fired to prevent it from entering the port of Sidra (“Es Sider”) to onload oil illegally.
A second tanker – which appears to have been a stateless vessel at the time – managed to load crude oil illegally in Sidra in March 2014, and then make its way out of Libyan waters under fire from the Libyan navy. U.S. Navy SEALs were deployed afterward to take the tanker down and prevent it from discharging its cargo.
Most recently, in January 2015, the Libyan navy fired again on a Greek-chartered, Liberian-flagged tanker just offshore from Derna. Two crewmen were killed in that incident. The Greek charter company insisted the tanker was on legitimate business. But the business wasn’t with any entity which the Libyan government in Tripoli could verify – that’s the core problem in the eastern ports, which are under the control of Islamists and tribal militias – and the Libyan government alleged that the tanker’s real business was smuggling Islamist guerrillas into the country.
The rapid spread of Islamic State in eastern Libya is certainly an indicator that the tanker’s business could have been such smuggling. There are undoubtedly cases in which smuggling is just what the ships calling in the eastern ports are there for.
This kind of low-level lawlessness will only get worse, the longer Libya is left to fester in its classic state of tribal chaos. My own view is that even Islamic State, with its shock-troop tactics, will find Libya to be a challenge. But Egypt and Tripoli will find Islamic State to be a challenge, in turn. They don’t have a way to dislodge IS solely by using air strikes. And even for a country the size of Egypt, trying to pacify eastern Libya while also maintaining order in the Sinai, and securing the nation’s heart around the Nile Delta against Muslim Brotherhood radicals, will be a very tall order.
That in itself is a strategic-level “core reality.” IS does have the capability to throw this region into a condition of instability from which it will have difficulty recovering. Until the imposed solutions of the post-World War I era, backed by two navies – the Royal Navy and then the U.S. Navy – whose power was wildly out of proportion to anything else in sight, no one ever succeeded in pacifying the North African coast, all the way from the Nile to the Atlantic side of Morocco. It’s a region likely to descend into disorder again, unless it is subdued from without.
There are no neat, quick solutions here. Neither Egypt nor Tripoli has the capability to impose an effective blockade on eastern Libya. With the very long coastline involved, NATO itself would be challenged to do it.
The day is not far off when Islamic State in Libya will have missile systems that can reach into Egypt, western Libya, Tunisia – and Greece and Italy. Crete, where NATO has key air bases, is only 150 statute miles from Derna. Sicily isn’t much further. Hezbollah already has missiles with modern guidance that can go that far; it will be no trick for Islamic State to come up with them. The enormous amount of seaborne traffic that passes close to the Libyan coast in the central Mediterranean will be vulnerable to an anti-ship missile threat sooner rather than later.
Islamic State has been acting with strategic purpose from the very beginning. It’s no accident that its enclave in Libya is on the promontory on which Derna is situated, sticking into the Mediterranean with the most commanding coastal position east of Tripoli. Islamic State has already said its eye is on Rome and Spain. We do ourselves a grave disservice by not taking its stated threats seriously. At the moment, Islamic State can’t “conquer” parts of Europe by means of military assault. But it does have the means to make us fight, and bleed.
The remedy? Get a real coalition together. Exterminate Islamic State in Libya, with a ruthlessness and thoroughness that would terrify the foes of ancient Rome. Impose order on Libya. Take sides. Shoot until the bad guys stop moving. Sign a paper and take some pictures. Keep a head-busting squad on standby. Recognize that peace doesn’t keep itself, and do what’s necessary instead of complaining about it.
No, Barack Obama isn’t capable of any of that.