Libya is once again in the news as the collapse of the country continues apace. Two weeks ago, the U.S. and other nations evacuated their diplomatic corps from the capital of Tripoli while fighting raged across the city and militants assaulted the international airport. The weak central government in Tripoli has been incapable of stopping the violence; the parliament itself is being forced to hold sessions away from the capital.
Meanwhile, General Hiftar, who had been independently fighting the extremists in Benghazi, seems to have suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of Ansar al-Shariah Libya, a group linked to al-Qaeda (AQ). Not long afterward, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah declared Benghazi was under the group’s control and that the city was now an “Islamic Emirate.”
The disintegration of Libya has not been well reported in the U.S., perhaps because the Benghazi disaster dominates American media coverage of Libya. It might also be because it is unclear to many Americans just what national interests are at stake in the country, beyond concern over U.S. lives, the general disquiet about the spread of extremism in the Middle East, and regrets over the loss of innocent lives to the militants.
Libya is, however, extremely important to the extremists. Within days of the first protests and demonstrations in the country against Qaddhafi, a group calling itself the “Islamic Emirate of Barqa,” whose leaders were reportedly former members of AQ that had just been released from prison, stormed a military arsenal in Derna and seized weapons, killed four soldiers, and wounded sixteen others. A few days later, the same group attacked the port at Derna and seized seventy military vehicles. CNN reported that, taking full advantage of the chaotic conditions in the country, Zawahiri personally sent experienced jihadists to Libya in May 2011 and mobilized at least 200 fighters for the group.
Participation in overthrowing Qaddhafi was just part of the extremist’s efforts in Libya. However: groups connected to AQ were soon attempting to impose their version of governance and Shariah. In April 2011, for instance, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) announced that it had created “Islamic Commands” in Derna, Benghazi, al-Bayda, al-Marj, and Shahhat. A few months later, a large demonstration in Derna by people waving the AQ flag called for the imposition of Shariah throughout the country. By June 2012, hundreds of members of Ansar al-Shariah Libya could stage an unopposed military parade in Benghazi—with military vehicles, tanks, mortars, and anti-aircraft guns—that demanded the implementation of Shariah. Similar parades were held in other cities, including Sirte, once Qaddhafi’s stronghold.
With the success of the revolution, there was a sudden and unexpected uptick in violence in Benghazi and Derna against the international community and countries, like the U.S. and Britain, that had helped the Libyan people to overthrow Qaddhafi. From March through August 2012, in Benghazi alone, there were IED and/or RPG attacks on a UN convoy, the US Consulate (in April and June), the ICRC, and the British Ambassador, in addition to multiple assaults on a prison holding jihadists, on Sufi shrines, and on the High Court. The 9-11 assault on the Benghazi Consulate by AQIM and other AQ-linked groups that led to the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans was part of this escalation in violence.
Since that attack, the violence in Libya, and Benghazi in particular, has continued unabated: police stations—a favorite target of AQ-linked groups—have been attacked; at least 68 people, political and security figures for the most part, have been assassinated in Benghazi; security forces in Derna have been targeted; an assault on the Benghazi prison allowed at least 1,000 prisoners to escape; and the country suffered its first suicide bombing in December.
The violence in Libya is spilling over into other countries as well. Perhaps the most significant instance of this continuing problem was the return from Libya to Mali of thousands of Tuareg fighters as Qaddhafi fell. Working with AQ-connected groups, these fighters were able to seize the northern half of Mali and impose their extremist vision of governance. In January 2013, a group linked to AQ was able to use heavy weaponry and recruits from Libya, as well as the porous borders between the two countries, to carry out the stunning assault on the Algerian oil refinery at ‘Ayn Amanas. There are reports of training camps set up in Libya to prepare fighters for participation in insurgencies and terrorism around the Middle East. It could be argued, in fact, that much of Libya has become a new safe haven for AQ and groups associated with it, one that neither the weak government of Libya nor the U.S. and our allies is able—or willing—to contest.
As the events in Benghazi two years ago demonstrate, the U.S. cannot simply stand by and pretend that the violence will not, sooner or later, affect us as well. Unless we are willing to give in to AQ’s demand that we withdraw entirely from the Middle East, stop supporting Israel and any Muslim leader they dislike, prevent even broadcasts to Muslim-majority countries, and thus allow the extremists to build their “caliphate” without interference, we will be their target both here and abroad. And by allowing places like Libya to fall into the hands of the extremists, we are giving them precisely the platform that they need to plot and plan their attacks against us.