Small Wars Journal

‘Confronting ISIS in Libya: The Case for an Expeditionary Counterinsurgency’

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 9:54pm

‘Confronting ISIS in Libya: The Case for an Expeditionary Counterinsurgency’

Nader Anaizi, Frederick H. Dotolo, III and Merouane Lakehal-Ayat

Introduction: ISIS in Libya

In February 2014, scattered news reports placed ISIS aligned fighters in the Mediterranean city of Derna in eastern Libya. However, these sightings were dismissed as returning Libyan jihadists from Syria until November, when after months of intensive ISIS terrorism, targeted assassinations, murders, and street battles, ISIS had taken control of the city. Derna was promptly incorporated into The Barqa Province of The Islamic State, an ominous portent for what ISIS intended to do to the rest of Libya.[1]

ISIS took Derna while the international community was focused on The Second Libyan Civil War, which had started in May 2014 and pitted the nation’s newly elected government at Tobruk against the prior Islamist controlled regime at Tripoli. Furthermore, both sides had foreign state supporters: Egypt, The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, The United States, and Europe recognized Tobruk, while Turkey and Qatar supported the Tripoli faction. The consequences of the civil war, with its associated international politics, prevented a unified response to ISIS. [2] This was a critical oversight because initially ISIS was very weak and its presence tentative. The group had no prior activity in North Africa let alone Libya, and Derna was traditionally controlled by rival Islamists. ISIS was also not even the main foreign terrorist group in Libya. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) had been in Libya for over a year with strong ties to the Tripoli government. Thus, ISIS faced considerable opposition from these groups. The Martyrs of Abu Salem Brigade, which was a jihadist-nationalist group, rejected the international character of ISIS’s political goals while The Libyan Shield Force, an alliance of tribal militias loyal to Tripoli, dominated western Libya. Even the new Libyan government, which was backed by The Libyan National Army was, despite being degraded during the recent revolution proved a viable adversary its 35,000 soldiers.[3]

Unlike the groups fighting in The Second Libyan Civil War, ISIS posed a unique threat because it seeks to destroy and incorporate Libya into The Islamic State, and then use Libya as base to further spread throughout North Africa and portions of Europe. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, proclaimed the existence of a caliphate in June 2014, and subsequently divided Libya into three provinces—Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and the Fezzan—with the ultimate goal, according to ISIS activists, of erasing the borders of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.[4] The existence of a caliphate benefits ISIS in other ways. In November 2014, al-Baghdadi ordered a Yemeni ISIS commander, Abu al-Baraa el Azdi, to Derna to lead military operations. By March 2015, ISIS had expanded into Benghazi and Sirte, and received the allegiance of two larger insurgency groups—Ansar al-Sharia, based in Benghazi, and Boko Haram in Nigeria.[5]

ISIS is seizing, governing, and exploiting Libyan territory. It intimidates the population into complacency, imposes on them the harsh laws of The Islamic State, and thereby attracts younger Libyan jihadists, who are either disenchanted by the lack of opportunity in the post-revolutionary period or who see ISIS as the best means of achieving an Islamic caliphate. Currently, it fields 5,000–7,500 fighters, a number which will likely continue to grow the longer ISIS controls Libya.[6] If unchallenged, ISIS will dominate the entire country, and use it to become a staging ground for the return of tens of thousands of Algerian, Tunisian, and Western jihadists currently in Syria and Iraq.[7] If left unchecked, ISIS will threaten the stability of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

ISIS has, as Mao Tse-tung argued any successful insurgency must, transitioned from guerrilla war into a regular military force that aims to complete the armed struggle with a final political transformation.[8] ISIS fighters wear military uniforms, use standardized equipment, and employ control and communications methods that resemble a regular force. Its tactics include mobility and firepower. It operates a full range of ground military vehicles, including armored fighting vehicles to main battle tanks to which its fighters gained access after overrunning military supply depots and arms’ caches.[9] Other heavy weapons include artillery and attack helicopters, all of which, according to a U. S. State Department assistant secretary, qualify ISIS as an army.[10] While observers might point out that ISIS lacks the technical knowledge to maintain these forces, it could easily obtained the necessary expertise, parts, and ammunition in a relatively short time because of the assets—the oil fields—that ISIS controls in Libya, and elsewhere.

However, for the time being, ISIS remains largely a light infantry force, although a well-financed, experienced, and competently led one, and is following a coherent national strategy—the establishment of a caliphate.[11] An analysis done by the Institute for the Study of War observed, ‘ISIS is pursuing a phased campaign design…the evolution of ISIS’s strategy in light of these reports resembles these same control phases, with ISIS behaving as a proper military organization.’[12] It concluded, ‘ISIS is not simply a terrorist organization, but rather an armed insurgency moving to control territory.’[13] Its theater decentralized military command structure, directed by a central political authority, is geared toward seizing, holding, and exploiting key economic and political terrains in the service of a discernable goal pursued through terrorism, fear, and military conquest.

The very strength of ISIS in Libya—gaining, holding, and governing territory—also provides a key vulnerability that can and should be exploited. Once ISIS takes territory, it must allocate logistical support, infrastructure, and manpower resources to hold and administer it. These resources seem to come, at least initially, from outside of the immediate area of operations, from other parts of the IS. A highly mobile counterinsurgency focus could interdict, destroy, and ultimately allow local military units to hold these strategic components. International security and development aid could also be employed to end, or mitigate the effort of the chaos of failed or collapsed states, including those undergoing civil war, and strengthening the institutions of the state (security, political, and economic), whilst also providing political legitimacy and economic development to prevent the recurrence of ISIS after military operations. At the same time, ISIS’s rigid ideological adherence to an uncompromising religious understanding, to the detriment of local religious groups and practices, must render it vulnerable to becoming delegitimized in the eyes of Muslims coming under its control, provided a viable, permanent, alternative solution is presented.

Setting the Stage for the ISIS Insurgency: The Outbreak of Second Libyan Civil War, May 2014

The civil war in Libya was finally precipitated when, after many abuses by the Islamist dominated government and amid widespread violence and lawlessness, the Chief of Staff, General Khalifa Hiftar, returned from retirement and threatened the government with military action unless it resigned. However, his actions were interpreted either as an attempt to restore elements of the older regime or implement a military dictatorship. He seemingly pointed in this direction when he declared that all Islamists were terrorists, and vowed to rid Libya of them by launching Operation Libya Dignity. Militias from the city of Misrata, members of The Muslim Brotherhood, and those persecuted by the former security forces allied with each other and The General National Congress (GNC). Aided with material and political support from Turkey, they launched Operation Libya Dawn in July to liberate Libya from Gaddafi-era leaders.[14] Their forces seized Tripoli and western Libya, and reinstated the GNC. A second government, elected shortly after the launch of Libya Dignity, the House of Representatives, was established in Tobruk, and was soon recognized by The United Nations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and The United Arab Emirates.

The civil war derailed any future constitutional stability in Libya and spread anarchy, allowing local Islamists in eastern Libya, notably Ansar Al Sharia, the opportunity to assert control. Armed groups clashed over control of the nation’s oil facilities, leading the petroleum industry in Libya, the National Oil Corporation (NOC), to declare force majeure.[15] This pronouncement signaled to the world that Libya had lost control of its oil resources, and provided ISIS the later opportunity to seize, hold, and sell the nation’s oil to finance its operations.

The Arrival of the Islamic State in Libya, 2014–5

Thousands of Libyans who had gone to Syria to fight Assad joined the Islamic State, and when they returned, spread its propaganda to the local population.[16] The turmoil of post-revolutionary Libya and the spread of civil war created the perfect opportunity for ISIS. The group gained the support of local disaffected Islamists—those who no longer expected the solution to Libya’s problems to be found in nationalist solutions.[17] The Shura Council for the Youth of Islam, for example, rejected both Tripoli and Tobruk, and pledged itself to ISIS, an act which granted the foreign-led group a sense of legitimacy and provided ISIS with an infrastructure from which to expand. Another tactic was to use Islamic charities, which were needed to help alleviate the sufferings caused by the economic problems and the depravations of the civil war. In other areas, ISIS used terror tactics to undermine the government and convince the population that it was too dangerous to oppose the group. These maneuvers succeeded, and the numerical strength of ISIS increased considerably. When ISIS reinforcements arrived from Iraq and Syria, the group made its most brutal statements in February and April 2015, by beheading twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians and, more recently, twenty-nine Ethiopian Christians.[18]

Security and Economic Implications of an ISIS dominated Libya

The dire issues facing Libya should ISIS dominate the entire country will have broad implications for the security of North Africa and southern Europe. Libya’s geographical position means that ISIS would be able to quickly destabilize surrounding states, creating the chaos it needs to expand. ISIS fighters and sympathizers could enter and leave Libya. The borders are wide and difficult to manage, and the desert regions offer vast areas for bases. Even Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was able, from just three desert bases in southern Libya, to attack targets in Algeria and Tunisia.[19]

The continuing war in Syria poses another potential danger for Libya and the region. Nationals from countries like Tunisia and Algeria, as well as the European nations, went to Syria and Iraq to fight. While some of those fighters, especially those who were in Syria genuinely aided the people to free country, many of the others fought alongside the Islamic State militia. In the same way that Libyans returned home to spread ISIS ideals, many of these fighters will eventually return to their own nations and do the same. ISIS has made clear its intentions to invade Europe, portions of which it has claimed for its caliphate. [20] Libya is the key strategic point from which to infiltrate fighters into Italy and southern Europe. The many refugees who fled the chaos in Libya, and risking the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean, would provide the perfect cover for men and women aligned with ISIS to enter Europe, an infiltration strategy that could be executed at little cost to ISIS, as it could send young, minimally trained, recruits on high terror yielding, Mumbai-style attacks.[21]

The ISIS problem in Libya is manageable, but only for a short time. The situation could quickly spiral out of control. The Libyan Army is hindered by its poor training and cannot legitimately acquire weapons because of The United Nations arms’ embargo.[22] Europe will face the gargantuan task of trying to mitigate the security risk along 1770 km of Libyan coast line and an additional 2146 km of coastline in Algeria and Tunisia. But given ISIS’s current expansion over the past year, with the additional support it has received from the state apparatus of The Islamic State, the conversion of other Islamists groups within Libya, Boko Haram’s recent declaration to ally with ISIS, and the return foreign fighters, the security problems would not stop with Libya, but would extend across North Africa and southern Europe.[23]

The Response to the Libyan Crisis: Limited International Counterterrorism Effort, 2011–4

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 provided the framework for international involvement in the Libyan Civil War of 2011. NATO subsequently enforced an arms’ embargo and a no-fly zone on Libya, while providing ground attack missions against regime forces for humanitarian purposes in Operation Unified Protector. After Qaddafi fell, a political process was agreed to by the parties, the revolution entered a political phase, and Unified Protector ended.

At that point, some Western nations continued to aid the GNC, by funding low-level counterterrorism efforts in Libya, mainly training or intelligence sharing.[24] The European Union, for example, backed The European Border Mission Libya, (EUBAM), to provide a border guards and a naval coast guard.[25] The Americans provided intelligence support until the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the destruction of the American Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. They trained Libyan Special Forces, and contributed to Libya’s security by helping the French and African Union counterinsurgency and peacekeeping missions in Mali and Central Africa, over the following year.[26]

The outbreak of the Second Libyan Civil War caused these missions to be either modified or outright canceled. The West shifted from direct government contact to providing minimal indirect support through international diplomacy, which was understandable before ISIS began to expand. The problem, however, was not only did the West lack an energetic strategy to deal with the declining political instability in Libya, it also completely ignored the significance of ISIS, facing it only in early spring 2015, when ISIS had already metastasized. In Libya, the international community was not focused on stopping ISIS, but rather in reconciling the two warring sides. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya, for example, sponsored talks that if successful would essentially reward the use of violence and authoritarianism in Libyan political life, furthering the very lawlessness that had led to the civil war and enabled ISIS to spread. [27]

One particular challenge the international community now faces is how to transition from its counterterrorism mentality. ISIS is brutal, its policy of terrorism designed to shock the local population, reinforcing the message that modern Arab governments and the West are weak, and ISIS is now established. Furthermore, the use of retaliatory of force provoked by ISIS’s terrorism aids speaks of Western defensiveness, and illustrates a lack of determined effort to dislodge ISIS from Libya. In early March 2015, for example, the Italian navy demonstrated off the city of Derna after ISIS threatened to attack Rome. And while the ISIS fighters fled their positions, because no one really expected sustained Italian military action, one even coordinated with the Libyan National Army, ISIS returned, probably strengthened by having survived another confrontation with the West.

Unilateral kinetic military operations which do not seize ISIS territory, a key area of vulnerability, are not effective. Egypt and The United Arab Emirates, for example, conducted air strikes against Islamist targets in August 2014, with the Egyptians hit ISIS after the Coptic Christians were murdered outside of Sirte. While these air strikes presumably damaged specific targets, because there was no subsequent ground operation to clear and hold Sirte, either unilaterally or better yet with the Libyans, nor were the air strikes conducted as part of a comprehensive strategy, for example to interdict ISIS supply routes, they failed to damage ISIS. In another case, the government of Tripoli ordered air strikes in support of the guards who were defending oil production sites from ISIS fighters, but these failed to prevent ISIS from overrunning the oil fields, because the guards lacked the ammunition to sustain an active defense, despite the air strike.

A New Response to ISIS: An Expeditionary Counterinsurgency (COIN)

The international community, especially members of those regional powers aligned with the Tobruk government: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, The African Union, The Arab League, The European Union, and the Western powers led by The United States, needs a comprehensive political and military counterinsurgency to aid the Libyans in restoring their own national sovereignty by driving out ISIS. In this respect, the Libyan National Army would require aid, though its competency is increasing. Over February and March 2015, the army secured the Port of Benghazi from Ansar al-Sharia, and made considerable gains against Islamist held positions outside of Tripoli, though little against ISIS.[28] Therefore, the coalition must be balanced between applying enough power to help the government but, because of Libya’s colonial history, cannot overwhelm the nation with tens of thousands of western troops deployed in heavy combat maneuver elements, as did the Surge in Iraq when 30,000 additional troops brought total strength to over 100,000 forces. Rather, the coalition presence should include smaller, mobile, combined arms formations that are heavy-hitting expeditionary units capable of immediately responding to the flow of the battle against ISIS, and correcting operational deficiencies in the Libyan military.

Similarly, the coalition could assist the Libyans with border security and by forming a strategic reserve nearby the country which could respond with overwhelming military force in case of dire military necessity. In addition, Western and regional political assistance to the Libyan government should focus on ending Turkish support for Tripoli, which is perpetuating the civil war and undermining the government’s ability to deal with ISIS, a threat not just to the Libyans but also, given the proximity of the Islamic State to Turkey, the Turks as well. The coalition could persuade The United Nations to reevaluate its current arms embargo to allow for a more sensible, case-by-case basis to enable the government to purchase arms and ammunition while preventing the Islamists and ISIS from being resupplied. Also, political and economic aid is needed to strengthen the Libyan state and economy if it is to correct decades of Qaddafi’s dictatorial policies that undermined genuine national institutions.[29]The key focus of the coalition, however, must to aid the Libyans in defeating ISIS by striking its vulnerabilities, particularly supply routes and strongholds.

The French experience during Operation Serval in Northern Mail in 2013, for example, might hold some lessons. The French deployed an expeditionary force of air, artillery, airmobile infantry, and tanks, about 4,500 soldiers—augmented by 3,000 men from The African-led International Support Mission to Mail African troops (AISMA), and 6,000 soldiers from the Malian army—to defeat Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other Islamist rebels holding northern and central Mali during Operation Serval. The French operated under a U.N. Security Council Resolution, and were requested by the Malian government. Their forces waged a high tempo operational and logistical offensive backing the Malian army which cleared the various towns and cities along the Niger River, while other African forces held the ground taken from the lighter armed terrorist forces.[30] French operations helped to squeeze AQIM fighters into remote strongholds, where they were subsequently isolated and destroyed.[31] During operations in Gao, for example, Chadian and Nigerian troops seized objectives supported by the French.[32] Afterwards, the French kept 1,000 troops in Mali—with an additional 3,000 based in smaller bases throughout the region—to conduct counterterrorism missions.[33]

However, coalition forces in Libya must understand that ISIS will use any wide-scale, large permanent military presence in the country to appeal to popular opposition, aiding anti-western propaganda and recruitment campaigns.[34] Therefore, coalition forces must be expeditionary in nature, with the capability to maneuver quickly from either over-the-horizon locations, such as amphibious vessels, or limited cantonments. There should be a high operational tempo as coalition forces quickly move into and out of areas of operations in support of The Libyan National Army to throw ISIS off-balance. Only if absolutely necessary would coalition forces be used to unilaterally seize and hold those territories, and then so these might be quickly turned over to the Libyans. Ideally, the coalition supports Libyan operations. Additionally, the coalition needs to see tactical victories as shaping not just the battlespace but more importantly advancing a strategic political goal—the defeat of ISIS held territory, and the destruction of those forces.

In the case of naval operations, because Libya has little if any capability, the coalition forces should be prepared to assume a more direct role. In other words, a naval component must be integral to the overall military mission because Libya currently lacks sufficient naval forces to even patrol its coastline. Also, the coalition must help Libya develop this naval capability as quickly and efficiently as possible. The United States Naval doctrine calls for the Navy to strengthen and stabilize regions, ‘by securing and leveraging the maritime domain, with and in support of national and international partners.’[35] There is a history of naval forces performing counterinsurgency missions in North Africa. During the Algerian War, for example, the French employed their navy in a full-range of air/naval/ground combat, support, and reconnaissance missions against The National Liberation Front, successfully denying the FLN resupply of arms and munitions from oversea sources while degrading their enemy’s combat effectiveness.[36] The key to the French approach was what one scholar observed, ‘Maritime security operations have tended to be implemented randomly. This approach needs to be replaced by a far more robust, proactive, and intelligence-led strategy…’[37]

Given Libya’s proximity to existing NATO assets, joint expeditionary forces—naval, air, and ground—would possess the military power and logistical sustainability to maintain operations, and could provide training and support to The Libyan National Army. The mission would require reasonable political and legal agreements with the government, and with tribal associations. It would include a counterterrorism dimension, but this would be more strategically focused than those employed haphazardly in 2012–3. The counterinsurgency should not become involved in the Libyan civil war; the military coalition is an ally of the Tobruk government in its fight against ISIS, and is not to be used against the Tripoli government.

A successful COIN can be accomplished in Libya. One example of what might constitute this COIN effort is The United States Marine Corps Expeditionary Force 21 concept. The Marines focus on conducting littoral operations that could support the Libyan army’s operations.[38] The document calls for expeditionary operations to be sea-based, rather than the traditional land-based force. While the concept is guiding Marine Corps planning for the next decade—a sea-based expeditionary force would require 38 naval ships, compared to the 14-16 current for a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB)—contingencies could provide the necessary platforms for a smaller Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) to be sea-based in the immediate future.[39] The problems in deploying a smaller force in Libya involves relative combat power, and sustainability, as the equivalent Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), is not suitable for counterinsurgency operations. The point is, however, that such a force is available to aid the Libyans in case of a dire necessity.

The ideal expeditionary force structure would be two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs) for the combat power, sustainability, and operational relief. Still these would have to be supplemented with additional theater forces from other NATO members, regional states, or associated international bodies, such as The African Union, if operations were expected to last beyond sixty days, as they did for The French in Mali. Built around a reinforced marine infantry regiment, a MEB is a joint expeditionary force that includes command, ground combat—infantry, artillery, and armor, and other assets—air, logistical, and support elements, and can operate independently ashore for thirty days. There are two main types of MEBs. An amphibious MEB is housed on amphibious ships, and moves ashore where it establishes positions for combat missions. The other example airlifts troops to a theater of operations, and marries these with prepositioned or maritime deployed ships.[40] A deployed MEB has approximately 14,000–18,000 personnel, which would be sufficient to aid the Libyan military against ISIS, but without the appearance of a permanent occupation.[41] An important component of this expeditionary counterinsurgency would be, while in theater, using smaller Company-sized Landing Teams, (CTLs) to bolster Libyan National Army units, increasing their capability, while maintaining a light ‘footprint’ for the Americans.

Regardless, a vigorous expeditionary MAGTF unit could deny ISIS access to the sea, severely undermine its ability to initiate operations, while bolstering the Libyan military’s operations. Furthermore, the MEBs could also coordinate with French expeditionary forces and their allies on Niger’s border with southern Libya, and with Egyptian, Tunisian, and Algerian forces on their respective frontiers to isolate ISIS, ensuring that Libyan operations would be more successful than not intervening, and leaving a status quo that is doing long-term damage to Libyan security.

A comprehensive COIN would also include economic and political components. The synergy of smart reforms with the fruits of successful military operations—striking ISIS’s vulnerabilities, by demonstrating to the population the weakness of IS—will lead to better political results for the government. The objective of these two components would be to strengthen existing all state institutions, including but not limited to the military, local police forces, legal systems, markets, and property and political protections. Reliance only on active counterterrorism missions, where coalition forces unevenly train Libyan forces or conduct drone strikes fails to address ISIS in a systematic manner, and amount to mere pinpricks that will not strike the vulnerability of ISIS.

Likewise, a population-centric COIN, where coalition forces attempt to secure the population first, would be problematic in Libya. The core of such a strategy is security, a metric that is very difficult to measure and which would require large numbers of foreign troops, at least initially, the number of which might tip the population toward ISIS, or simply allow ISIS to wait out the withdrawal of foreign troops before resuming its insurgency from untouched strongholds. This would also undermine the legitimacy of the Libyan government, which is responsible for securing the Libyan people.

This type of security COIN would confuse the effort, as tactics would replace strategy. Hew Strachan writes that ‘in counter-insurgency the distinctions between the levels of war, tactical, operational, strategic and political, are much less clear than in major war.’[42] Therefore, coalition forces must avoid confusing tactical successes with achieving local security, especially if ISIS can wait out the coalition. The other issues with a population/security COIN, is that ISIS would use those areas of Libya it governs to attack government or coalition declared ‘safe’ areas, gaining political advantage. If the coalition does not address retaking ISIS’s territory, then no matter what the coalition did, and no matter how many ISIS fighters were killed, or facilities bombed, ISIS would be seen as having survived, and thus having defeated the coalition.

Likewise, reliance on a counterterrorism response only, although less costly to coalition governments, is largely ineffective as it would only require coalition forces to “engage with nations’ military or civilian security forces and authorities,”[43]and not seize ISIS’s key political and military terrain. This strategy would not be effective in stopping further ISIS expansion.[44] Reliance on an air strategy, where coalition forces just bomb ISIS targets, even in support of local militia, would also not be very effective. The U.S. has already flown over 5,000 missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and ISIS has still expanded.[45] In those instances in Iraq in which coalition air strikes have aided Shia militias in taking ISIS strongholds, the resulting sectarian violence unleashed by the militiamen has undermined the populace’s political support for the government.[46] Airpower alone cannot take territory and because it cannot be applied in a broadly sustained manner it presents ISIS with military opportunities to exploit. During the recent air campaign in Iraq, for example, even though ISIS was on the defensive throughout Anbar Province, it still managed to overrun an advanced Iraqi brigade headquarters at Thar Thar.[47] Despite having expelled ISIS from Tikrit, the situation in more recent weeks remained strategically grim as ISIS forces switched operations to Ramadi.[48]

One argument for the use of air strikes in counterterrorism missions is that it spares ‘boots on the ground,’ while supporting the ground forces of host government. But even this is problematic: During operations in Tikrit, ISIS defenders inflicted considerable casualties on the attacking poorly trained Shiite militias, the bulk of the government force retaking the city. The offensive was halted for days before it resumed and secured the city.[49] Likewise, in its wake, there are no indications the Iraqi government is interested in developing any institutions beyond security forces in Tikrit that will prevent the return of ISIS, let alone address those concerns that led to the Sunni revolt in the first place. Similarly, relying on militia forces to conduct a ground war is troubling given the rise of sectarian violence associated with militias. Out of 24,000 men conducting operations in Tikrit, for example, 20,000 were militiamen, a disparity that could easily contribute to the return of social conflict and ethnic cleansing, thereby increasing the popular support for ISIS among Iraq’s Sunnis.[50] There is also the question of whether such ground force are efficient. At Kobanî in Syria, for example, only after four months of coalition air strikes and brutal ground combat between ISIS and Kurdish militia, were the Kurds able to finally drive ISIS from the town

Based on experiences in Iraq and Syria, it would seem that neither a counterterrorism approach nor relying on untrained, or ill-trained and equipped militia are ways forward against ISIS in Libya. An expeditionary counterinsurgency led by the west could succeed if the coalition supplements, supports, and trains the Libyan army, which has proven itself in limited engagements against Islamists and ISIS fighters. As the situation in Libya deteriorates, the window for action is closing fast. There are a multitude of factors that must be assessed when considering any commitment, but to do nothing or to do too little, would only increase the costs for action later when the threat from ISIS has metastasized.

By courtesy of, used with permission.

End Notes

[1] Maggie Michael, ‘Libyan city is first outside of Syria, Iraq to join ISIS’,, 10 November 2014, (accessed 21 March 2015).

[2] Fehim Taştekin, ‘Turkey’s War in Libya’, Al-Monitor, 4 December 2014, (accessed 20 March 2018), and Ishaan Tharoor and Adam Taylor, ‘Here are the key players fighting the war for Libya, all over again’, The Washington Post 27August 2014, (accessed 20 March 2015).

[3] BBC, ‘Guide to Key Libyan Militias’, 20 May 2014, (accessed 15 February 2015).

[4] Andrew Engel, ‘The Islamic State’s Expansion in Libya’, Washington Institute, (accessed April 19, 2015).

[5] ‘Islamic State (IS) Recruits Terrorists throughout North Africa and Middle East’, Global Research News (accessed 20 March 2015) and ‘ISIL Tightens grip on Libya’s Derna,’, 7 March 2015, (accessed 16 March 2015) and Noman Benotman, ‘Libya has become the Latest ISIL Conquest’,, 24 October 2014, (accessed 16 March 2015).

[6] Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group,’ Foreign Affairs 94 (2015): 87-98.

[7] Jack Moore, ‘5,000 Foreign Fighters Flock to Libya as ISIS call for Jihadists’,, 3 March 2015 (accessed 15 March 2015), and ‘Libya army Chief warns of ISIL threat against Europe’, 20 March 2015 (accessed 20 March 2015).

[8] Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents since 1750 (New York: Routledge, 2001), 70-3.

[9] Jeremy Bender and Armin Rosen, ‘As ISIS continues to gain ground, here’s what the militants have in their arsenal’, 17 November 2014 (accessed 20 April 2015).

[10] Janine Davidson, ‘ISIS hasn’t gone anywhere- and it’s getting stronger,’ July 24, 2014, Council of Foreign Relations (accessed 20 April 2015).

[11] ‘Report: ISIL forming air force with captured fighter jets choppers’, World,  20 October 2014 (accessed 22 March 2015).

[12] Alex Bilger, ‘ISIS annual reports reveal a metrics-driven military command’, Institute for the Study of War, 24 May 2014 (accessed  19April 2015).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hatita, ‘Libyan jihadists in Syria and Iraq returning home to fight Haftar: security sources,’ Al-Awsat

[15] Reuters, ‘NOC: Libya Declares Force Majeure on 11 Oilfields Due to Insecurity’,, 5 March 2015 (accessed 18 March 2015).

[16] Vivienne Walt, ‘How ISIS Sprung Up in Libya’, 26 February 2015 (accessed 20 March 2015).

[17] Tim Lister, ‘ISIS atrocity in Libya demonstrates its growing reach in North Africa’,, 17 February 2015,  (accessed 20 March 2015).

[18] BBC, ‘IS releases new killing video of Ethiopian Christians’,, 20 April 2015, (accessed 20 April 2015).

[19] Nick Squires, ‘Tunisia museum gunmen went to Libya for weapons training’,, 20 March 2015,  (accessed 20 March 2015).

[20] Crisina Silva, ‘ISIS will spread to Europe if Libya Threat is Not Stopped, warns Libyan Army Chief,’, 20 March 2015, (accessed 19 April 2015).

[21] Tucker Reals, ‘Why Europe should worry about ISIS in Libya’,, 23 February 2015,  (accessed 18 March 2015).

[22] ‘UN Security Council keeps Libya arms embargo in place’,, 3 March 2015, (accessed 20 March 2015).

[23] Nima Elbagir, Paul Cruickshank, and Mohammed Tawfeeq ‘Boko Haram purportedly pledges allegiance to ISIS,’, 9 March 2015, (accessed 20 March 2015).

[24] Gaub, 47.

[25] “EU ‘Civilian’ Missions training Paramilitaries”,, 18 November 2013, (accessed 20 March 2015).

 accessed 17 March 2015

[26] Eric Schmidt, ‘US Training Elite Antiterror Troops in Four African Nations’,, 26 May 2014,

 (accessed 17 March 2015).

[27] Andrew Engel, ‘Libya as a Failed State: Causes, Consequences, Options’,, November 2014, 14 (accessed 18 March 2015).

[28] See Lucy Westscott, ‘Libyan Army Reportedly Has Taken Back Benghazi Port’,, 6 February 2015, (accessed 18 February 2015) and Alarabiya, ‘Libyan Army Seizes Two Towns near Capital’,, 20 March 2015, (accessed 20 March 2015).

[29] Ishaan Tharoor and Adam Taylor, ‘Here are the key players fighting the war for Libya, all over again’, The Washington Post, 27 August 2015.

[30] Michael Shurik, France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army (Santa Monica: Rand, 2014), 9.

[31] Murielle Delaporte, ‘French Lessons from Mali: Fight Alone, Supply Together’,, 17 June 2013, (accessed 19 March 2015).

[32] Shurik, 15.

[33] BBC, ‘France to deploy troops to fight Sahara militants’,, 8 May 2014 (accessed 20 March 2015).

[34] Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2-4.

[35] The United States Navy. ‘The U.S. Navy’s Vision for Confronting Irregular Challenges’, January 2010, 3 (accessed 15 March 2015).

[36] Bernand Estival, ‘The French navy and the Algerian War’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 25(2002), 93.

[37] Martin Murphy, ‘The Blue, Green, and Brown: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency on the Water’, Contemporary Security Policy, 28 (2007), 74.

[38] The United States Marine Corps, ‘Expeditionary 21’,, 4 March 2015, (accessed 20 March 2015).

[39] Ibid., 43-44.

[40] Global Security, ‘Marine Expeditionary Brigade’,, (accessed 20 April 2015).

[41] U.S. Marine Corps Concepts and Programs, ‘Types of MAGTFs’,, (accessed 20 April 2015).

[42] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War, 218.

[43] Joint Publication 3-26 Counterterrorism, II-2.

[44] Ibid., II-5.

[45] Scott Vickery, ‘Operation Inherent Resolve: An Interim Assessment’,, 13 January 2015, (accessed 5 March 2015).

[46] Elizabeth Chuck, ‘Why the Obama Administration keeps Saying Degrade and Destroy’,, (accessed 20 March 2015).

[47] Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss, ‘Islamic State overruns Iraqi Army Brigade Headquarters north of Fallujah,’, 15 March 2015, (accessed 18 March 2015).

[48] Al Arabiya, ‘Iraqi army begins operation to expel ISIS from Ramadi’,, 18 April 2015, (accessed April 20, 2015).

[50] Deborah Amos, ‘In Tikrit Offensive, Local Sunnis, Shiite Militias are unlikely Allies’,, 19 March 2015, (accessed 20 March 2015).


About the Author(s)

Merouane Lakehal-Ayat, PhD is a Professor of Finance at St. John Fisher College. His research and publications concern investment theory, corporate finance and market economies.

Frederick Dotolo is an Associate Professor of History at St. John Fisher College. His research and publications concern Italian colonialism, and modern Small Wars.

Nader Anaizi is Financial Controller at JPG Morgan Chase Bank in Newark, Delaware with research and policy interests in modern Libya.


Jeff Goodson

Sun, 08/23/2015 - 11:21am

In reply to by joerichard


You make some interesting points. I'm especially interested in your development and stability comment:

"...For example, stability and development still do not have a valid theoretical construct, or even a workable operational theory. As a result, an enormous amount of money was wasted by Dept. of State on stability operations (USAID is under the purview of state)...".

Setting aside for now the issue of what the SIGARs ballyhoo as "waste," your point about lack of either a theoretical construct or workable operational theory for development and stability resonates. Could you expand on your thinking about this? It's important, especially given development as an integral part of much irregular warfare and stability operations as a typology of irregular warfare on its own.

Thanks in advance,

Jeff Goodson

Bill C.

Sat, 08/22/2015 - 5:56pm

In reply to by Anaizi

"This COIN is only one part of a larger effort that must be executed on a strict timeline to ensure that we help return security to the country, both militarily and civilly, support the ability to build sustainable governing institutions and create an economic development platform to financially support and provide opportunity."

The COIN that you authors, and "joerichard" above appear to discuss, is a COIN which is based on a mandatory requirement to transform outlying states and societies, such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

What we must come to understand, however, is that if the populations of these countries do not wish to see their states and societies transformed -- more along modern western political, economic and social lines -- then our efforts to try to do so, via COIN or via some other approach, are more likely to fuel, rather than to quell, the insurgency and instability fires. (Cases in point: Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.)

Thus, your assertion that "the insurgency is an effect of the poor management of the country by its government/people after the toppling of Gaddafi, which in turn is a result of over a century of colonial and dictatorial rule;" this would seem to be inaccurate.

Rather these insurgencies, and their continuing nature, would seem to relate more to, metaphorically speaking, our trying to drive a round Western peg into a square, and severely non-western, hole.


a. Eliminate the (destructive, destabalizing, ruinous, impossible?) requirement to, via COIN, transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

b. Adopt, in the place of this, a more-indigenous political, economic and social method/model and

c. See counterinsurgency, stability, etc. become "easy?"

(I admit, up front, however, that this such indigenous approach -- while allowing for a better chance at peace and prosperity, DOES NOT meet our mandatory political objective; which is, of course, the transformation of outlying states and societies [at some acceptable cost?] more along modern western political, economic and social lines.)


Sat, 08/22/2015 - 2:51pm

In reply to by joerichard

Hi Joe C.,

Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your point of view but disagree with your comorbidity reference. The comparisons you made and referred to as disorders do not all degrade societies to the same degree or at the same stage. These disorders are a result of each other.

The general trend (and this is with everything) is cause and effect. The insurgency is an effect of the poor management of the country by its government/people after the toppling of Gaddafi, which is in turn a result of over a century of colonial and dictatorial rule.

More importantly to your point, I agree we need to address all of the issues and not just the insurgency. But first, before any other effort can succeed, the COIN must be implemented to begin to return order to the region. Additionally this COIN is not like other COINs that have been implemented in the past. It aims to support and more importantly training military and policy forces to secure the country thus giving them the resources and capabilities to continue to secure the country after the COIN is concluded. This COIN is only one part of a larger effort that must be executed on a strict timeline to ensure that we help return security to the country, both militarily and civilly, support the ability to build sustainable governing institutions and create an economic development platform to financially support and provide opportunity.



Sat, 08/01/2015 - 10:28am

In reply to by joerichard


Welcome aboard SWJ. I know of your actuvity via another forum as moderator / owner. We are a broad church here. Yes, we have our rules. Your contribution here is well within the debate SWJ tries to encourage.


Fri, 07/31/2015 - 9:28pm

The problem with counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies is clearly individual and organizational biases. I can prove it in the next three minutes, if you continue reading. First allow me to introduce myself.

I’m not a US Marine, I’m not Special Forces, I’m not even a military officer (or a USMC officer), and hell…I’m not even affiliated with John Hopkins University. With this information in mind, Small Wars Journal may just delete this comment, but if they post it you may decide to stop reading right here. See how internal and external biases work?

Curious? Then keep reading. I’m sixty years old, enlisted in 1974 (Vietnam era), was assigned to a Ranger BN (over 7-yrs.), travelled to Central and South American extensively during the late 70s and early 80s (was wounded there), retired after the first Gulf War (1995), finished a BA and MA in psychology, and then acted as a member of a multidisciplinary psychiatric treatment team on secure inpatient psych-wards (5-yrs). Next, I developed training and taught US and coalition forces COIN tactics on the border of Iraq and Kuwait (5-yrs.). During that time I published a book about asymmetric tactical training. The book was eventually reviewed by GEN Mattis, LTG Caslen, and COL Clark who was the director at the COIN Training Center in Kabul (CTC-A). I was told GEN Petraeus asked COL Clark to review the book. A month after that I was working at CTC-A and four months later was the curriculum developer. Since 2006 I have called the Philippines my home, so I have somewhat witnessed the end or near-end of one of the longest insurgencies in history. I am also front row center to over half of the longest conflicts in history since those conflicts are in Asia. I’m still not a US Marine, Special Forces, military officer, or affiliated with a prestigious university. But I try not to be biased and try very hard not to talk out-a-my ass.

Individual biases are internal to a person. They are self-imposed beliefs, self-educed prejudices, and individually reinforced preconceived notions. Individual biases can stop a person in his tracks when the evidence says keep going. Organizational biases are external to the individual, but have much adverse effect on individuals. The best example I can find is the abstract term motivation. The Department of Defense (DoD), in particular the U.S. Army (USA), explains motivation as a purely external phenomena; one that is outside the individual and exclusively applied and controlled by leaders. This is absolutely wrong. Motivation is both internal and external. People can motivate themselves without any help and someone can motivate others. Motivation is both internal and external. US Military organizational knowledge about motivation is biased, and as such incorrect. Now back to COIN and the evidence.

Insurgencies, more often than not, occur along with terrorism, instability, threat financing, criminal activity, and transnational organized crime. Fact; irregular threats like an insurgency have comorbid characteristics. Typically irregular threats occur simultaneously, but independently of each other. Irregular threats run in a pack and act like carnivorous self-serving wild animals. Irregular threats do not act in a pro-social manner and their activities are not based on rational choices, as hypnotized.

Mitigation and counter efforts therefore have to address the pack, not just one irregular threat at a time, like the insurgency, but all of the adversarial irregular threats simultaneously. Plans and operations; stability and development; safety and security; government and governance; information and operations; and financial management and monitoring are the “big six” areas of concern. Several of these “big six” areas are still lacking. Iraq and Afghanistan are blatant examples of what can go wrong if the “big six” are not addressed correctly and simultaneously. For example, stability and development still do not have a valid theoretical construct, or even a workable operational theory. As a result, an enormous amount of money was wasted by Dept. of State on stability operations (USAID is under the purview of state). To confirm this waste, review the reports from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Safety and security efforts are still not linked. The armed forces do a good job when it comes to security, but law enforcement entities, tangentially, do their own thing since their efforts are based on a law-enforcement-justice approach. This approach does not recognize irregular threats as being irregular and does not take-into-account the irregular environment. This is another Dept. of State area of responsibility. Government & governance and financial management & monitoring are two more Dept. of State areas of responsibility. Both of these areas of concern do not recognize irregular threats as being hybrid, or asymmetric. Both of these “big six” areas have decided not to embrace, absorb, or even consider the irregular threats operating concept. Biases against the irregular threats concept or biases against the military? Who knows?

While the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were being dealt with head-on, the rest of the pack were busy chewing on the carcass.

Ok, so there you go. But what do I know…I’m not even an NCO now since I’m retired.

Take care.

Joe C.

Move Forward

Fri, 07/31/2015 - 10:26am

We see that RantCorp is at it again talking about RMA MICkey in Tom Ordeman's COIN article vs. the human Mk1 eyeball on the ground. This article and Libya in general gives us a great opportunity to make a point disputing Rant's argument.

Libya has 1,760,000 square kilometers but only about 6,244,000 people in 2014. Texas (which is similar in size to Iraq and Afghanistan) is about .4 the size of Libya. Alaska is nearly the same size as Libya but has only 737,000 population. Texas had a population in 2014 of around 27 million which is similar to Iraq and Afghanistan and over four times the people of Libya in half the area. Point: Libya is not necessarily a human-rich environment and smart human insurgents would disperse hugging civilians or hiding too far south for Marine infantry access.

We immediately could compare the challenge of ground forces in Libya with that of Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria in terms of geographical area. What we could <strong>not</strong> do is compare past insurgencies in El Salvador to Libya. Both have nearly identical-sized populations but Libya is 83.6 times larger and ground intervisibility is far different meaning more opportunity to hide in complex terrain in El Salvador.

So let's put Rant's CIA or SF guy on the ground in Libya with his highly-trained Mk1 eyeball. Assume that this studdly character is standing on a small rise in the ground putting his eyeballs at 6'-7" so his horizon of view (if the ground is flat) is 5 kms. How many guys will we need on the ground to see all of Libya's area if we spread them around in an even manner? Answer: 22,400 men or women using that pi times radius squared stuff. However, we probably don't want a single guy alone and afraid so add a second guy to the OP and that means 44,800. Multiply 22,400 by nine for an Army squad, twelve if you want ODA's, or thirteen for a Marine squad equally spread around the country and your ground force totals now equal 201,600 to 291,200.

Now introduce RMA MICkey MQ-9 Reaper at 22,841' (Aconcagua mountain in Wikipedia reference to horizon field of view). How many Reapers do we need to see all of Libya with a horizon of view of 296 kms in all directions? Answer: 6.4. Of course you won't have sufficient magnification to see that far and actually discern anything of value. Nevertheless you get the point.

Now add the factors of lethality, speed, endurance, and ability to deal with the heat. Our studdly ODA, Army, or Marine squad needs lots of food and water in Libya and has to sleep. At walking speed it will take a really long time to get anywhere. Does that mean we now need some trucks and aircraft for ground supply and airdrop, plus helicopters/MV-22s to get troops around? Wouldn't we consider those assets to be RMA MICkey Rant?

What about indirect fire support and CAS/CCA? That squad-sized element is pretty vulnerable to surprise and massed attack without RMA MICkey CAS and attack helicopters, 155mm, GPS MLRS, and lift helicopters/MV-22s supporting it with air quick reaction forces and MEDEVAC/CASEVAC. Is the Golden Hour even viable in Libya with sea-basing only? Can intelligence support our troops without RMA MICkey, relying solely on the Mk1 eyeball? How far can our squads communicate on the ground? Can our infantry squad or ODA reach out and touch something 5 kms away with weapons or see that far at night and in poor weather?

Obviously you would not spread them around equally and many areas are open desert that do not need coverage. Nevertheless, will introduction of ground forces alone without RMA MICkey be very effective? What about the range of limited RMA MICkey night vision goggles and rifles (maybe Javelins) for our ground troops vs. the Reapers advanced FLIR and Hellfire missiles? Could there be a radar on the Reaper, too? Does our Reaper need to eat, drink, or sleep? Are we worried about ISIL ambushing and beheading our Reaper like we might worry about the ground squad, ODA, or OP?

The authors here are correct to point out that bombing and RMA MICkey alone cannot secure terrain and stabilize the country, but they most certainly would help particularly in initial shaping and subsequent close combat and stability operations. Only ground forces can clear, hold, and transition but how long would it take? Is Libya still a single country? Even ISIL would break it up into 3 districts and we already see divides between the east and west parts of Libya that could indicate that existing borders might not suffice.

From a tactical and logistical standpoint, sea-basing might present FOB-at-sea and commuting-to-war comparisons that might not fit COIN theory. The MV-22 certainly could overcome many distance barriers compared to helicopters but then airdrop could do the same with perhaps less risk of MANPAD (aren't there lots of SA-24s still on the loose?) and ground fire.

The wisdom of putting ground forces in Libya is an altogether different matter. Too little, too late? How does Libya compare as a vital national interest relative to Syria-Iraq with neighboring Iran, Russian, and Turk/GCC involvement? The fact that these authors appear to have ties to economic banking (oil?), and academic interests makes it somewhat interesting, if not troubling. Nevertheless, thanks for the article and opportunity to make my point about RMA MICkey.