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25 April 2016

To combat Islamic State, the world’s leaders need to restore order to Libya

US intelligence estimates indicate the number of IS fighters in Libya has probably doubled to between 4,000 and 6,000 in the last 12-18 months.

By Andrew Hammond

Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Matteo Renzi meet today in Hannover in a G5 summit billed as a discussion of the next phase of the battle against so-called Islamic State (IS). While the US-UK-German-French-Italian session has a wide-ranging economic and political agenda, the future of Libya is expected to be centre stage.                         

This is because, at a time when the newly-established Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya wants to restore order in the country, there are growing concerns that IS may be establishing a stronghold there, especially in the coastal city of Sirte. US intelligence estimates indicate the number of IS fighters in Libya has probably doubled to between 4,000-6,000 in the last 12-18 months, with growing evidence that a significant number of these terrorists are travelling from Iraq and Syria where, because of offensive operations from the 66 member coalition forces, IS fighters are believed to be at the lowest level for at least two years.

Some five and a half years after the death of Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, there is a potential ‘window of opportunity’ to try to bring greater order to the country following upheaval since then. In the absence of the failure to plan for the aftermath of the Gaddafi regime, which Obama has called the “worst mistake” of his presidency, the nation is currently controlled by rival militias, governments and parliaments.

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the G5 are particularly intent on eliminating the prospect of IS developing a base of operations in Libya to attack Europe. Last week, for instance, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that “everything possible” must be done to stabilise the country, including potentially sending UK troops to train forces under the command of the GNA, stressing that IS “it is a direct threat to Britain as well as the rest of Western Europe and we have every interest in securing the security of a stable Libya”.

In this context, Obama has said that a full range of tools will now be used to roll back IS in Libya, from financial, intelligence, military and logistical support, and it is reported that UK special forces are already operating in the country. While sending combat troops has apparently been ruled out, it is “quite possible” the GNA will request air and naval support to combat IS according to British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond.

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Obama will also stress at the meeting today that the situation in Libya also underlines the needs for better European counterterrorism strategies and intelligence sharing to tackle the growing IS menace, especially in the wake of the Brussels and Paris attacks. The president perceives major gaps in intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing within the continent about the IS network, including in relation to movement of its terrorists across borders, and will stress that this needs better resolution just as the United States has sought to do after the September 2001 attacks.

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The G5 will also discuss restoration of oil production to shore up Libya’s economy, and migration flows from the country too. On the oil front, as UN statistics underline, the country has long relied almost entirely on oil and gas extraction, which accounts for 95% of export earnings and 99% of government income.

Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa and amongst the top 10 globally with production of some 1.65 million barrels per day in 2010 prior to Gaddafi’s ousting.  However, production today stands at around 360,000 barrels a day which reflects Libya’s plunge into chaos since then, including IS attacks on oil infrastructure. Rejuvenating Libya’s oil production is not just critical to restoring the fortunes of the economy, but also to the GNA’s survival, and alleviating migration flows from the country.      

Much attention has recently been put on the new migrant deal between the EU, Turkey and Greece which will see new irregular migrants crossing to Greece returned to Turkey, with Brussels footing the bill.In return, the EU will admit vetted Syrian refugees directly from Turkey – one for each Syrian asylum seeker Ankara took back from Greece.  

However, migration from Libya to Italy is a pressing issue too, driven by instability post-the Gaddafi regime’s fall. A key reason for the G5’s urgency is not just the numbers of migrants, but also the fact that the death rate in 2015 on this sea route, based on data from the International Organisation for Migration, was around 1 in 20, compared to approximately 1 in 1,000 between Greece and Turkey.

Taken overall, the G5 are now likely to intensify efforts to shore up the GNA in Libya, and tackle the growing IS menace in the country. Underlying this is the strategic priority to prevent the terrorist network using Libya as a key terrorist base of operations to attack Europe, whilst also mitigating migration flows from the country to the continent.