Alex Wilner is an assistant professor at Carleton University, and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Canada's new government will soon unveil its Islamic State strategy. But there's one issue we haven't yet heard much about: Libya. As Canadians continue to explore the scope and nature of our conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, our allies are already moving on to a new front.
Canada needs to have an open and frank debate about whether and how Libya fits into our larger anti-IS strategy. What immediate and long-term risks and consequences do we face by confronting – or failing to confront – IS in Libya?
Canadians will recall our 2011 debate over joining the coalition that toppled Moammar Gadhafi's Libyan regime. We had another debate last March after IS in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts. It's time for a third round.
Last week, U.S. General Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was unequivocal. "It's fair to say that we're looking to take decisive military action against ISIL" in Libya in the coming "weeks." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry later warned that "the last thing … you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of [Libyan] oil revenue."
France, Britain and Italy appear set to join the United States. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that IS could use its Libyan foothold to cross into Europe this spring, "mixing in with refugees." The scenario harks back to the November Paris attacks in which IS gunmen exploited the chaos of the migrant crisis to slip in and out of Europe.
IS declared its province in Libya in late 2014. It captured the central port city of Sirte the following May. Today, Sirte functions as IS's Libyan capital, much as Raqqa and Mosul do in Syria and Iraq. IS also controls another 200 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline and several small towns. Libya provides IS with myriad opportunities.
The country's political chaos is welcome news to IS. Two rival governments spar for control. A United Nations-brokered settlement that would create a unity government shows promise, but has been slow to gain traction. In the meantime, several militant groups – many associated with al-Qaeda – are carving up territory. Flush from its expansion in the Middle East, IS has used Libya's anarchy to foster tribal support and co-opt local militants.
Libya's oil and gas reserves and infrastructure are also appealing. In the past month IS has attacked several oil installations in part to deny Libya's future government the revenues needed to provide effective security across the country. IS thrives within fractured states. But as it does elsewhere, IS can also generate black-market revenues by smuggling Libyan oil.
Finally, Libya provides IS with sanctuary. Under pressure from Western and Russian bombardment in Syria and Iraq, IS has sent several hundred "key officials and fighters" to Libya over the past few months. IS foreign recruits have likewise been directed to head to Libya instead of Syria. Estimates suggest that IS has between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters in the country.
From Libya, IS has plotted numerous atrocities. The gunmen who killed 21, mostly European tourists, at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia last March, and another 38 people – including 35 Britons – on a Tunisian beach three months later, are all thought to have trained at IS camps in neighbouring Libya.
In light of all of this, Canada's U.S. and European allies appear determined to eventually open a third front against IS in North Africa.
American and British Special Operations teams are already conducting reconnaissance missions in the country. They're mapping out the terrain, leveraging local allies and identifying targets. In an opening salvo, a U.S. air strike killed a senior Iraqi IS leader in Libya last November. France is working on a provisional military plan that leverages its African assets. And Italy, a prime supporter of the UN's ongoing negotiation, is hoping a Libyan unity government will facilitate co-operation between local and Western forces.
Canada's anti-IS plan is still evolving. After meeting his U.S. and Mexican counterparts last Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion hinted that Canada's emerging strategy was not "strictly about Iraq." Syria, Jordan and Lebanon were all on the table.
But Canada should be focusing on the even bigger picture. The Islamic State is an aggressive expansionist organization, in Libya and beyond. Our strategy should reflect that.