Playing Whack-a-Terrorist in Libya

The Libyan “regime change” of 2011 aggressively promoted by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  turned a relatively prosperous and secular country into another failed state where terrorism is finding a home, prompting new calls for a Western “whack-a-mole” intervention, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

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.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the four victims of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012. [State Department photo)

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the four victims of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012. (State Department photo)

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-Gaddafi 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, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Playing Whack-a-Terrorist in Libya

  1. dahoit
    February 19, 2016 at 13:21

    Today,we whacked 30 alleged terrorists in Libya for actions in Tunisia.Its spreading,the war of terror.

  2. dahoit
    February 18, 2016 at 10:06

    Abe,I salute your intelligence and doggedness in finding truth.
    Until we purge the Zionist within,we are f*cked.Plain and simple.

  3. Abe
    February 17, 2016 at 19:23

    Every villain needs a safe house and the Islamic State (IS) is no exception. Luckily for IS, it has two, possibly three waiting for it, all of them courtesy of NATO and in particular the United States.

    The war in Syria has been going particularly poor for IS. With Russian air power cutting their supply lines with Turkey and the Syrian Arab Army closing in, it may soon be time for them to shop for a new home.

    If the war is going bad for IS, it is going even worse for the supporting powers that have armed and funded them. To understand where IS might go next, one must first fully understand those supporting powers behind them. The premeditated creation of IS and revelations of the identity of their supporters were divulged in a Department of Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo first published in 2012.

    It admitted:

    “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”

    The DIA memo then explains exactly who this “Salafist principality’s” supporters are (and who its true enemies are):

    “The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime.”

    Before the Syrian war, there was Libya…

    The DIA memo is important to remember, as is the fact that before the Syrian conflict, there was the Libyan war in which NATO destroyed the ruling government of Muammar Qaddafi and left what one can only described as an intentional and very much premeditated power vacuum in its place. Within that vacuum it would be eventually revealed through the death of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens that from the Libyan city of Benghazi, weapons and militants were being shipped by the US State Department first to Turkey, then onward to invade northern Syria.

    And it appears the terrorists have been moving back and forth both ways through this US-sponsored terror pipeline.

    IS has since announced an official presence in Libya, and Libya now stands as one of several “safe houses” IS may use when finally pushed from Syria altogether by increasingly successful joint Syrian-Russian military operations.

    […] Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan would be ideal locations to move IS. Libya’s state of intentionally created lawlessness gives the US and its allies a fair degree of plausible deniability as to why they will be unable to “find” and “neutralize” IS.

    Finding the Islamic State a Safe House
    By Ulson Gunnar

  4. Abe
    February 17, 2016 at 19:15

    It is now demonstrably clear that the source of ISIS’ fighting capacity originated almost exclusively from NATO-member Turkey’s territory and more specifically, from between the Afrin-Jarabulus corridor.

    So far, NATO has been unable to account for this obvious fact, or explain why it has been unable to secure the Turkish border from the Turkish side, particularly when nations including the United States and United Kingdom have for years been conducting military and intelligence operations precisely in the same locations ISIS supplies have been crossing over into Syria from.

    As Syrian and Kurdish forces backed by Russian airpower close one logistical corridor after another along the border, the fighting capacity of ISIS has withered to the verge of collapsing.

    As ISIS Folds US-NATO-GCC Mount Rescue

    For several days now, Turkey has been firing across the border at the pivotal Syrian city of Azaz. The city is on the verge of being overrun by Kurdish fighters who will for all intents and purposes shut down one of ISIS’ last remaining logistical hubs supplying their fighters in Syria from Turkey.

    Turkey has vowed not to allow the city to fall and has implied that it is willing to go as far as invade Syria to ensure that it doesn’t.

    […] in all Western media stories, it is never precisely mentioned who the Kurds are fighting in Azaz – because it is ISIS.

    Considering this, Turkey would be quite literally intervening to save ISIS and other hardcore terrorist groups sharing the city with it.

    Saber-Rattling or Wider War?

    An invasion into Syria would constitute an act of war – and beyond that – affirmation that NATO was behind the ISIS menace from the beginning. While leaks like that of the United States’ own Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2015 have exposed this rhetorically, a NATO invasion of Syria to save an ISIS stronghold from destruction would prove it demonstrably.

    The fact that the US is attempting to distance itself politically from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia – who has also pledged to carry out ground operations in Syria amid the collapse of terrorist fronts across the country – indicates a possible attempt to produce plausible deniability ahead of a much larger provocation or intervention.

    Just as US policymakers had plotted in 2009 to use an apparent “unilateral” attack by Israel upon Iran to provoke a retaliation the US could then use as a pretext to “reluctantly’ go to war, a similar strategy appears to be materializing along Syria’s borders today.

    While the US and Europe attempt to distance themselves from Turkey, they have at the same time committed to a campaign of disinformation attempting to frame ongoing security operations moving ever closer toward Turkey’s border as “targeting civilians” and attacking “moderate rebels” at the expense of fighting ISIS. This is to lend Turkey and Saudi Arabia rhetorical cover, however tenuous, ahead of any actual intervention.

    What will ultimately determine whether this remains mere “saber-rattling” or transforms incrementally into wider war, will be the actual deterrence Syria and its allies, including nuclear-armed Russia, are prepared to meet continued provocations with.

    Syria: At the Gateway of Greater War
    By Tony Cartalucci

    • Abe
      February 17, 2016 at 19:43

      In reality, the Syrians and Russians are having alot of success whacking the US-NATO-GCC-backed ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist moles in Syria.

      That’s why the US is desperate trying to save its faux “moderate rebels”.

      Don’t ask Pillar about any of this. They didn’t teach this level of analysis at the CIA.

      Pillar would rather talk about how ISIS showed up in Libya due to the “severe governance problem”.

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