Islamic State on the march: Extended war coming to Libya

The so-called global ‘anti-terror’ front seems to be expanding its tentacles as leaders of the ‘free world’ plan to end the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State (IS). Thanks to their ‘wise’ policy of funding proxy groups, IS is reported to have been ‘quite successful’ in capturing a lot of territory rich in oil in Libya.

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Such groups, whether in Libya or in the Middle East, owe their existence as well as financial and fighting strength (whatever they have) to “certain powers” that aim at establishing a regime of domination, if not unchallenged hegemony, on global political-economy. Hence, the saga of “oil wars” and “energy pipeline politics”– key pillars of this regime of domination.

‘Oil’ continues to be the cause of many wars being fought today and also the most important source of funding them. Perhaps, an allusion to the fast decreasing financial ability of the “great powers” to fund these wars through ‘shadow money.’ That is to say, if terrorist groups like IS can conveniently extract oil and also sell it in the market, they do not particularly need secret financial assistance from their mentors. Hence, IS’ “oil drive” in Syria as well as Libya.

Were the media reports (and some official statements) to be believed, the IS has already established its control over more than 240 kilometers of Libyan coastline. The number of IS militants in the area is estimated to exceed 5,000 and among them, besides Libyans, are former citizens of various Arab, African and European states.

Hence, the December 1, 2015 warning by the UN observers that Libya is turning into a key stronghold of IS –implying, indirectly though, that the IS has found a good hiding place to regroup and re-organize itself in Libya after facing mounted bombing from Russian side and reasonably successful ground operations by the Syrian Army in Syria.

Russia’s specific targeting of IS’ oil tankers in Syria certainly has done damage to the groups’ financial strength, prompting them to intensify attacks in Libya to capture oil reservoirs. This goal is to be achieved by getting hold of Libyan ports, strategically important roads, intersections, and the better part of Libya’s oil terminals to the south of Ajdabiya.

Islamists’ assault on the port of Es Sider in January leading to a prolonged fire fight with the defense units  entrusted with its security reveals they have been actively pursuing this goal. The estimated income one can get from Libya’s oil amounts to a whopping $100 billion a year.

On January 12, some other attacks were reported. Last week, IS tried to seize export terminals in the so-called “oil crescent” of northern Libya, killing 56 people in two suicide bombings in Zliten and Ras Lanouf, east of Tripoli.

“On Sunday night, the guards intercepted three boats trying to enter the oil port of Zueitina,” said Ali al-Hassi, spokesman for the guards protecting oil facilities for Libya’s “recognised government.”

IS fighters have stepped up their attacks on Libya’s oil facilities since the country’s two major political factions agreed last month to a UN-negotiated deal aimed at creating a unity government by mid-January. A national unity government backed by loyal security forces could take back control of the country’s oil facilities. In this context, IS not only seems to be aiming at controlling Libya’s oil for itself but also disrupting its supply to put the would-be unity government in considerable financial jeopardy as soon as it comes into existence.

By creating such chaos in Libya, IS is planning to use it as a base camp to re-group, re-organize itself financially and militarily to extend its operations not only in Africa but also in the European continent. Perhaps, a big reason for the ‘West’ to worry about.

Here is how Libya can boost the groups’ military capacity. Since the beginning of crisis in Libya in 2011, the country has turned into a haven for weapons suppliers/smugglers. Apart from it, the destruction of the Libyan state as a direct result of Western military intervention in 2011 also marked the uncontrolled spread of weapon supplies in the country and along its borders. As a result, the IS was able to take control of weapons supplies destined to government militias in Tripoli.

While some may tend to disagree or even deny that IS is gaining easy access to oil and weapons in Libya, it can hardly be denied that Libya is fast turning into  IS’ new ‘international capital.’

Hence, the need for a fresh NATO intervention.

The possibility of a NATO military operation in Libya has been confirmed by a Libyan representative in the United Nations. According to him, four NATO countries (the United States, Italy, France and the United Kingdom) are prepared to launch air strikes against IS strongholds in Libya, which would be later supported by ground troops, which, in turn, should establish control over the territories occupied by IS.

Although it looks simple enough, it is not so, however. That a full scale NATO intervention has not taken place yet is not simply due to any fictional strategic problem. The West, as it stands, is waiting for the eventual establishment of the so-called (western-backed) ‘Unity Government’ in Libya — a government that would then ‘invite’ NATO to intervene, making things for NATO countries much easier, especially compared with the sort of troubles they had to face with regard to getting legal authorization for intervening in Syria. So much for the West’s craving for a “legitimate” intervention!

According to some credible sources, once the inclusive government is confirmed, the P3+5 will seek a UN Security Council resolution to authorise intervention in Libya to “train” the local police, army and coastguard. Special Forces from Britain, France and the US will also conduct counter-terrorism operations against the Libyan branch of IS and other Islamist groups.

As part of the military operations, American and French air strikes will be required, with British jets unlikely to participate because of the commitment to fight IS in Iraq (and now is Syria too), a Whitehall source was reported to have stated.

An extended war is, therefore, certainly coming to Libya. The question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ it will come. As reports indicate, it will be soon.

However, the important question that must be raised at this stage is how a fresh NATO intervention in Libya can contribute to “peace” when such an intervention back in 2011 is the very reason for today’s chaos? Will NATO’s fresh intervention be more “humanitarian” this time?

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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