The only commendable point about the international focus on Libya is that it was there at all. The Rome talks, called by the Americans and the Italians, to corral the fractious Libyan parties into a deal of no return, underlined the world’s anxiety about letting Libya continue as it has for 14 months — with two governments but not enough governance, leaderless, lawless and liable to be controlled by one or more terrorist groups.
However, anxiety cannot substitute for an astute plan. The Rome deliberations revolve around a UN deal for a unity government, which would incorporate the opposing parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk.
Even though members of the rival administrations agreed in Tunis on December 11th that the accord would be signed, it is by no means a done deal, leaving the international interlocutors in a situation rather like Sisyphus, the mythic king who was condemned to endlessly push an immense boulder up a hill and helplessly watch it roll back down.
Part of the reason is the sheer chutzpah of forcing the leaders of the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk to agree to something they have already rejected. Add to that the UN and Western powers’ high-handed dismissal of the alternative peace plan proposed by delegates of both bodies.
Finally, there is the impertinence of proposing that Libya’s new unity government be headed by the relatively little known Faiez al-Serraj, a name floated by outsiders and eliciting not even the two-and-a-half cheers that might suggest he would pass muster.
Even if all were to go as the United Nations planned, it’s thought highly unlikely that Serraj and others in the proposed nine-member presidential council would be able to take charge from, in and of Tripoli or, indeed, of much of the rest of the country.
The implications are chilling and their arc of influence extends much beyond Libya. Not least in neighbouring Tunisia, from where hundreds of jihadis have answered the call to arms in Libya. It must be expected that they are planning on crossing back to destabilise the only success story of the “Arab spring”.
But developments in Libya threaten the wider world. Rewind to 1996 and the pressure on Osama bin Laden by Hassan al-Turabi to leave Sudan. Bin Laden made a tactical alliance with the newly resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, receiving permission to set up training camps in the east and, even more crucially, a safe haven for his men to rest between missions.
In his book Denial of Sanctuary: Understanding Terrorist Safe Havens, Michael A. Innes offers the following telling quote from military analyst James Dunnigan: “Bin Laden understood how effective a base was to the success of a worldwide terrorism campaign against the West.”
By 1998, bin Laden had organised a Muslim Foreign Legion of sorts, made up of fighters from around the world to help the Taliban’s struggle in Afghanistan. Innes writes that, by 2000, the Taliban’s reclusive leader Mullah Omar increasingly listened to bin Laden’s advice on the need to extend the “revolution” beyond Afghanistan. “Al-Qaeda ‘parasite’ was increasingly controlling the actions of its ‘host’. Far from being a state sponsor of terrorism, the Taliban had become a state sponsored by terrorism,” Innes wrote.
At the time, it was a first. Today, there is a sense of déjà vu because the world is already watching — appalled but unable decisively to act — something similar is happening in Syria and Iraq. Conflict and a political vacuum in each country have given the Islamic State (ISIS) the space — and sanctuary — to establish not only a state sponsored by terrorism but for terrorism.
However, this so-called caliphate may be only the beginning. There are signs that ISIS is zooming in on Libya now that the skies over Syria have filled with bombers from disparate countries.
Increasingly under pressure, the extremist group is said to be slowly moving its leaders and foot soldiers to Libya. They go by sea. ISIS’s Libyan wing, which is close to the leadership, controls Sirte, just 600 km from the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Times of London recently reported that ISIS had seized control of Sabratha, a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its Roman treasures, thereby moving within 80 km of Tripoli.
Unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, ISIS would not need permission from a “host” in Libya. There is no one host and everyone has their price.
The Syrian question is undoubtedly urgent but the Libyan one is arguably more so. Faux UN-brokered deals cannot dispel the sense of a profound darkness just over the horizon.