On Tuesday, President Barack Obama vowed that when the U.S. and its allies “see opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in, in Libya, we take them.” On Friday, as many as 40 people were killed in U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS militants in western Libya. The operation was aimed at suspects linked to attacks at a museum and beach resort in Tunisia last year that killed dozens of people.
This is the second recent U.S. airstrike against ISIS in the country. One in November killed the veteran Iraqi jihadist Abu Nabil, thought to be the leader of the group’s affiliate in Libya. U.S. officials also said last month that they are “looking at military options” to combat ISIS’s growth in Libya, which could involve deploying U.S. special forces to coordinate with local militias.
In a well-timed essay for the current issue of Foreign Affairs, counterterrorism scholar Daniel Byman writes that any strategy to combat ISIS has to take into account its wilayat, or “provinces,” as it calls its affiliates outsides its central territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS provinces have already been declared in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Caucasus. Some of these aren’t that organized and others are only symbolically affiliated with ISIS. Some factions within Nigeria’s Boko Haram have declared allegiance to ISIS, for instance, but it’s not clear that there’s much actual coordination going on. The ISIS affiliate in Sinai, which downed a Russian airliner last October, and the one in Libya, which controls significant territory around the coastal city of Sirte, are the most dangerous from a western perspective. The Libyan province, in particular, has taken full advantage of the chaotic power vacuum that has emerged since the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the current lack of a central government with control over the entire country has made combating it difficult.
For ISIS, these affiliates boost their global profile and legitimacy with the jihadist movement, as well as providing a Plan B if things start to go badly in Iraq and Syria. The experience of al-Qaida is instructive here. The group’s Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has continued to plan attacks against the west, including last year’s Charlie Hebdo massacre, long after the Pakistan-based central leadership led by Osama Bin Laden was mostly decimated. The affiliates take advantage of ISIS’s brand name, as well as funding and logistical support to carry out attacks and produce propaganda. The downsides are that any group claiming the ISIS label is now painting a target on its back for Western militaries that might otherwise have little interest in local jihadist movements. ISIS also has to own the actions of its affiliates: Russia only began targeting ISIS in Syria after the Sinai affiliate shot down the jetliner.
The Libya strikes, as well as recent moves to target Taliban renegades who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State in Afghanistan, make it clear that the U.S. war on ISIS has gone global. It seems a little quaint at this point to note that it’s not clear how exactly this is legal. The Obama administration is using the 2001 resolution authorizing force against the perpetrators of 9/11 to justify its strikes on ISIS in Syria, under the rationale that ISIS is the successor group to al-Qaida in Iraq. This was shaky to begin with, since ISIS is at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates, but it gets even shakier as the U.S. expands its operations to target groups in multiple countries that are spinoffs of ISIS itself. It shouldn’t be impossible to develop a legal framework that would allow the administration to target dangerous affiliates like ISIS in Libya when necessary, but given the current state of affairs on Capitol Hill, a protracted, open-ended, borderless war against a murkily defined enemy, fought in a legal vacuum, is, sadly, the more doable scenario.