At a meeting of G5 world leaders in Hanover, Germany, this week, a proposal was raised for US warships to join vessels of EU navies off the coast of Libya. Their mission would be to help slow the flow of migrants from Africa.
They would also be responsible for guarding the southern tip of Europe from seaborne terrorist attacks. Such a notion, unimaginable a few years ago, is now very much in the range of possibilities.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond this week noted that his government did not “rule out” the possibility of a ground forces deployment into Libya, to combat the threat of Islamic State.
What is the reason for the renewed focus on troubled Libya? The short answer is that an area of de facto Islamic State sovereignty now exists on a section of the Libyan coast, situated just 320 km. from the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost point of Italian sovereignty in the Mediterranean.
That is to say, Islamic State – in sovereign form, not merely as an idea – is now separated by only a relatively narrow stretch of water from the southern tip of Europe.
Islamic State controls an area of around 200 km. around the north-central city of Sirte on the Libyan coast. In addition to opening the gateway to Europe, this area gives the jihadists access to sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb.
Sirte is no dusty backwater. It has an extensive infrastructure, including a seaport and an international airport.
It is also adjacent to two sites vital to the oil industry, on which Libya relies – the Sidr oil port and the refinery at Ra’s Lanuf.
Libya is an area in which central government has broken down – the type of space in which Islamic State naturally flourishes. An agreement for a new, countrywide government was reached in December, and a new government announced on January 19. This was intended to replace a situation in which two separate administrations nominally held power – an officially recognized government in Tobruk and a de facto Islamist authority in Tripoli, the capital. The Islamic State holding in Sirte is situated between the two.
But the new government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has not been recognized by the parliament in Tobruk. And more important, it lacks the physical resources to impose its will throughout the country.
Hence, Libya – along with Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon – is a state that has effectively ceased to function.
The difference is that Libya combines the perfect storm of proximity to Europe, jihadi control of a section of the coastline, and closeness to sub-Saharan Africa, with its limitless supply of migrants. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian estimated, in a statement to Agence France-Presse this week, that around 800,000 would-be migrants are currently concentrated in Libya.
All this is serving to concentrate the minds of Western policy-makers.
As Islamic State prepares to expand toward areas vital for the Libyan oil industry, on which the country depends, the issue becomes more urgent.
The organization has ambitions to expand its area of control both eastward and westward. Its immediate targets are the city of Misrata, halfway between Sirte and Tripoli, and Ajdabiya to the east.
Western forces are already present and assisting in the effort to prevent this. In late February, US special forces carried out a raid on the town of Sabratha, in which 40 Islamic State men were killed.
Reports have appeared in the British and French media concerning the presence of special forces soldiers also from both these countries close to the and French aircraft are carrying out reconnaissance missions over Sirte. Le Monde described what it termed a “secret war” being conducted by French intelligence and special forces personnel against Islamic State on Libyan soil.
The strategy at present appears to resemble that being employed in Syria and Iraq. Namely – use air power to partner with local allies identified by intelligence and bolstered by the discreet presence of Western special forces.
The entities surrounding Islamic State on Libyan soil are of course far from helpless.
And the jihadis have only around 6,000 fighters. So the prospects for a rapid expansion remain limited. Nevertheless, the potential for severe disruption of European life represented by an Islamic State entity at the gates of the continent should not be underestimated.
From a European point of view, the nightmare scenario is not only the flow of migrants itself, nor the chance of Islamic State attacks from the sea.
Rather, the combination of the two – the prospect whereby Islamic State will seek to infiltrate fighters and organizers into the continent by way of the flow of migrants – is what keeps European security officials awake at night.
It is no longer a theoretical possibility. Najim Lachraoui, one of the suicide bombers in the attack on Brussels Airport on March 22, was able to return to Europe from Syria by posing as a migrant.
Lachraoui was Belgian-born but had traveled to Syria to volunteer with Islamic State.
The latest statements from Western officials suggest that they appear to be waking up to the extent of the challenge.
The nature and extent of their response remains to be seen. •