Libya, Syria, and the Resurgence of Al-Qaeda Reply

With Libya steadily approaching failed-state status and Syria engulfed in a devastating civil war, the US and its allies must redouble their efforts to combat Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and North Africa.

By Aya Burweila

When the death of Gaddafi was announced on October 20, 2011, President Barack Obama boldly described an alternate reality, declaring that:

“The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted… For the region, today’s events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end … This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world. We’ve taken out al Qaeda leaders and we’ve put them on the path to defeat.”1

Facts on the ground however, paint a different picture. Far from taking out al-Qaeda leaders or putting them on a path to defeat, NATO foreign policy has empowered al-Qaeda and expanded its sphere of influence. Or as Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation points out: “There has been a net expansion in the number and geographic scope of al-Qaeda affiliates and allies over the past decade, indicating that al-Qaeda and its brand are far from defeated.”2

Nowhere is this more evident than in the events that have unfolded in Libya and Syria. With the crucial support of the United States, Britain, France, Turkey and their agenda-setting allies in the Gulf, one of the primary causes for al-Qaeda’s expansion has been the uprisings/proxy civil wars of the ‘Arab Spring’ that created an opportune vacuum for Islamists to both spread and consolidate their footing in the region. An echo of Iraq, foreign intervention in Libya under the guise of democracy-building resulted in the transformation of Libya into a failed state whose chaos is perpetuated and exploited not only by local mujahideen -who were NATO’s local partners in overthrowing Gaddafi- but also regional mujahideen in Mali, Algeria and most importantly, in Syria.3 Not surprisingly, reflecting on the arms proliferation spurned by the destruction of Libya, General Sir David, Britain’s ex chief of defense, now states that though the NATO-led campaign was a tactical success, its strategic wisdom is questionable.4 Narco-jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar of AQIM agrees:“We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world…As for our benefiting from the [Libyan] weapons, this is a natural thing in these kind of circumstances”5

Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, there is a continuous and unchecked flow of weapons outside of Libya. These weapons are:

  • Small arms,
  • anti-tank mines,
  • rocket-propelled grenade launchers,
  • light machine guns,
  • crates of ammunition and rockets,
  • truck-mounted heavy machine guns,
  • anti-aircraft artillery MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems).6

Today, the main militias and terror groups perpetuating civil strife and undermining the government in Libya are the following:

  • Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council,
  • Al-Qaqa Brigade,
  • Al-Sawaiq Brigade, Misrata Brigades,
  • 17 February Martyrs Brigade,
  • Ansar al-Sharia Brigade,
  • Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade,
  • Libya Shield Force Western Brigade7

And of course, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which merged with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007. It is important to note that the LIFG, newly empowered by NATO, also began to send Libyan arms and fighters to mujahideen in Syria like the al-Nusra Front and the ISIS, which is also indirectly supported by the arms flowing from Turkey, the Gulf Countries and the CIA.8 According to Jane’s, nearly half of rebel fighters are jihadists.9 In neighboring Mali,

‘the flood of weapons and fighters out of Libya has now added to an arc of insecurity across West Africa, stretching from Boko Haram Islamists behind a spate of lethal bombings in Nigeria to al Qaeda allies who have targeted Westerners and armed forces in the Sahel all the way to Mauritania in the north.’10

The AQIM, for its part, networks with other major terrorist groups in the region, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, and Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 11 Or as Pepe Escobar succinctly says: ‘LIFG, AQIM, AQAP, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab, Al-Nusra Front; this acronym/branding spectacular is all interconnected.’ 12

Surpassing Iraq, Syria, with more than 10, 000 jihadi fighters, is now the largest haven for al-Qaeda.13 This is an especially significant development for international jihad. As one ‘local emir’ in Syria claims, the momentum for a regional jihad is increasing: “If you control this part of Syria, you control all the Middle East.” 14 Moreover, as Clinton Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute explains,

“Each of these conflicts in the region generates a new series of networks — funders, suppliers, moneymen — and all of these networks get turned to whatever new conflict that comes up…Someday the Syria conflict is going to stop raging, but these networks are going to be there, and the fighters are still going to be there.”15

Only recently, on December 22, 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an army base in Barsis, 30 miles outside Benghazi. Killing at least thirteen people, the Libyan army unit that was targeted by the bomber was aggressively fighting back against jihadi militias by disrupting their supply routes between Derna and Benghazi.16 Two days later in Benghazi, on December 24, a soldier belonging to the al-Saiqa special forces was shot to death by unknown attackers and the 23-year old son of a senior naval officer lost a foot when a bomb exploded underneath his car.17 As Swiss oil analyst Petromatrix observed, “We are currently witnessing the collapse of state in Libya, and the country is getting closer to local wars for oil revenues.”18

Today, Libya predictably continues to cement its status as a failed state while Syria is quickly becoming Al-Qaeda’s most dangerous stronghold.19 To prevent such blowback in the future, the matter which should be investigated is how such a strategic expansion and renaissance of international terrorism was made possible with the help of the countries legally bound to fight terrorism and how institutions that aid and abet terrorists can be held accountable. Or a re-education of politicians and mainstream media outlets that promote interventions that end up serving as an auxiliary military to mujahideen.

 Aya Burweila is a Senior Analyst at the Athens-based intelligence and security think tank, RIEAS (The Research Institute for European and American Studies). For full footnotes please visit: http://www.rieas.gr/images/aya14updated.pdf 

This article previously appeared at the RIEAS’ webpage. Copyright: http://www.rieas.gr

Photo credit: Flickr Commons, user: jdubfudge

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