Libya Under Siege

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates respond to a jihadist takeover -- while the U.S. stands in their way.

libya-tripoli-airport-seized-by-islamist-militiasWhile media attention has focused of late on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which has seized large swaths of territory in Syria and northern Iraq, jihadists are also on the march in Libya. A coalition of jihadists, operating under the name Dawn of Libya, has claimed to have taken control of Libya’s main international airport in its capital city Tripoli as well as some other locations in the capital city itself. Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, is already in the hands of other jihadists including Ansar al-Shariah, some of whom may have participated in the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans nearly two years ago.

“We will not accept the project of democracy, secular parties, nor the parties that falsely claim the Islamic cause,” a statement issued last week by an alliance of Benghazi-based jihadists, including Ansar al-Shariah, declared.

Whatever excuses the Obama administration may try to make with regards to the chaos brought about by ISIS in Iraq, including continued finger-pointing at the Bush administration, the mess in Libya has happened entirely on President Obama’s watch. It stems from President Obama’s decision to back the rebels in forcibly removing Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power without any thought about the destabilizing consequences for Libya, North Africa and the entire Middle East region. Obama himself admitted that there were lessons to be learned from the Libya regime change operation. “Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’” Obama said to New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman on Aug. 8th.

Qaddafi was of no strategic threat to the United States. Indeed, one of the positive byproducts of the Iraq war launched in 2003 was the fear Qaddafi had of a similar invasion that led to his decision to give up entirely his nuclear arms program. But Obama got sucked into a military conflict in Libya that morphed from a limited humanitarian rescue operation into a war to bring about regime change. Obama yielded to pressure from France, the United Kingdom and the Arab League to expand the objectives of the operation. Members of his own administration characterized his role as “leading from behind.”

Removing Qaddafi left a huge vacuum for the jihadists to fill. Libya lacks any real central government today. Instead, two rival parliaments appear to be emerging, the original one controlled by the jihadists and a newly elected one more closely aligned with anti-jihadists.  Weapons from Qaddafi’s stockpiles have been dispersed to militias within Libya as well as to North Africa and Syria, some falling into the jihadists’ hands. Militias in support of the jihadists and opposing the jihadists are fighting each other in Libya, with the jihadists appearing to have gained the upper hand. With the country on the brink of civil war, and a possible replication in Libya of the self-declared caliphate that ISIS has established in parts of Iraq and Syria, U.S. and other Western nations have pulled out their diplomats from Tripoli. The United Nations has reduced its presence to a bare minimum.

Obama’s response to all this has followed his usual pattern of dithering and indecision. But it is even worse than that. The Obama administration appears to be trying to impede Egypt and the United Arab Emirates from proceeding on their own to protect their countries from the rising tide of jihad across the Middle East, including right on Egypt’s doorstep in neighboring Libya.

According to an August 25th report by the New York Times, four senior American officials said that the United States was caught by surprise upon learning that “Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly teamed up to launch airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya.”

Egypt reportedly provided the bases from which to launch the attacks, which occurred in the vicinity of Tripoli. The United Arab Emirates, which has one of the more proficient air forces in the region, reportedly furnished the pilots and planes to carry out the strikes.

Egyptian officials denied any involvement in the airstrikes in their discussions with Obama State Department diplomats. The United Arab Emirates has been cagier in its remarks on the subject.

According to the New York Times report, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have cooperated previously in special force operations inside Libya, targeting jihadists.

Instead of welcoming the operation to thwart jihadists who already have American blood on their hands, the Obama administration reacted angrily. “We don’t see this as constructive at all,” one senior American official was quoted by the New York Times as saying.

This foolish remark ignores the simple truth that the jihadists fighting to take over Libya are of the same ideological bent as the ISIS jihadists who beheaded Jim Foley and whom we are now fighting directly. In fact, Libya's al-Battar brigade is working with ISIS and has returned from fighting in Syria to join Ansar al-Shariah. It issued a statement last June warning that heads would be cut off, stomachs slit and Libya filled with graves to revenge the shooting of one of its jihadists who had fought in Syria.

Ramzi Yousef, a member of Ansar al-Shariah said, "The group of al-Battar, the word refers to one of the names of the sword an affiliate of Ansar al-Sharia. It was founded in Syria and all its members are from Libya. They are the fiercest because they do not negotiate but just act."

Expressions of support have also been exchanged between ISIS and Libyan jihadists.

The Obama administration is fully aware that Qatar – the same country that is helping to bankroll Hamas and the jihadists fighting in Syria – is providing support to the Libyan-based jihadists. Just as Secretary of State John Kerry tried to push Israel into accepting a Qatari-brokered ceasefire with Hamas on largely Hamas’s terms instead of the ceasefire terms supported by Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration is favoring Qatar’s interests over those of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And this means it is effectively coming out on the side of the jihadists in Libya, as the Obama administration did in Egypt itself when it helped install, and then tried to keep in power, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Against any common sense reckoning of U.S. interests in the region, the Obama administration criticized the two Arab countries trying to fend off the jihadist threat in Libya on their own -before the threat in Libya metastasizes into something much larger on the model of ISIS. Rather than fume and pressure Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to stand down, the Obama administration should welcome regional coalitions like this to fight the jihadist scourge wherever it pops up. Instead of leading from behind, President Obama should just get out of the way.

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