The world is waking up to the threat posed by the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya over the past year. The renewed Western focus on combating the group is related to the Nov. 13 Paris attacks — although they had nothing to do with Libya — and the increasing recognition that the U.N.-brokered Libyan Political Agreement signed on Dec. 17 is, for the moment at least, unimplementable. Therefore, a national unity government able to take on the Islamic State will not be in place any time soon. But the urge to act, or to be seen acting, against the Islamic State should not be a reason to embark on a new large-scale military adventure in Libya — one that would have unpredictable results and likely worsen the situation on the ground by making the Libyan conflict harder to resolve.
Perhaps most fundamental to understanding the Islamic State’s relative success in Libya is the question of how it grew.Perhaps most fundamental to understanding the Islamic State’s relative success in Libya is the question of how it grew. Initially, its success appeared chiefly driven by its victories in Syria and Iraq, most notably the capture of the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul. This allowed the Islamic State’s fledgling Libyan affiliate to attract new followers from the many other armed groups, Islamist or not, that existed in the country. It was most successful in drawing members of Ansar al-Sharia, in part because it assassinated leaders of the group who refused to give their allegiance.
The international community’s hope that a unity government could take the lead in fighting IS has remained just that: a hope.The international community’s hope that a unity government could take the lead in fighting IS has remained just that: a hope. It is not likely to be fulfilled anytime soon if the world’s focus remains on securing a top-down political deal. The implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement is already stalling, just as the talks that preceded it stalled until Western and regional powers imposed it on largely recalcitrant Libyan stakeholders. This situation was predictable as long as diplomatic efforts continued to focus on Libyan political actors who are unable to bring along most of their supporters.