As predicted by MEA Risk LLC, the Western intervention in Libya has started yesterday, as U.S. forces kicked off an air campaign in Sabratha, 40 miles west of Tripoli. Although earlier MEA Risk analysts predicted the target to be the IS stronghold of Sirte, US bombers focused instead on Sabratha, seeking to eliminate Tunisia-born Daesh leader Noureddine Chouchane. Chouchane is believed to have directed and organized the terror attacks against the Bardo Museum in Tunis and against hotels in Sousse, Tunisia that took place last year. To recall, neighboring Tunisia to the West of Libya has been struggling to contain militant activity on its territory, starting with its own home-grown militants, but also having to deal with incursions from Libya.
Sebratha’s city council has announced that at least 41 people were killed and 6 others were wounded in the air strike, and that machine guns and RPG launchers were found under the rubble.
U.S. Defense officials said weeks ago that military plans were being developed, while intelligence was being gathered to launch the air campaign. The large-scale military reinforcements in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Chad suggest that the political and military leaders of those countries were appraised of this development, which might also have some adverse consequences for Libya and the whole region. Firstly, the air campaign is likely to cause a spike in more hardcore militant infiltrations into Libya, as the Islamic State will be compelled to draw in more extreme types from Syria and Iraq. Part of this move is also a strategy to deflate tension in the Syria/Iraq theater and reduce pressure on badly battered IS combatants by getting Western powers focus their attention on Libya.
Secondly, some militant brigades, the ones that are less focused on direct combat, but more on covert operations and terrorism, are likely to exit the northern coast of Libya, and attempt to relocate elsewhere in the southern provinces and even infiltrate Niger, Sudan, Chad, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. Although Egypt has been calling for a Western intervention in Libya, the other countries have been vocal against such intervention fearing fresh militant and refugee influx into their territories.
At first, the choice of Sebratha by US forces was surprising. The most likely logical target would have been the region of Sirte for at least two major reasons. First, and unlike Sebratha, Sirte is home to the highest concentration of IS militants, alongside the northeaster region of Benghazi. The ongoing campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, which accelerated with the recent involvement of the Russians has led to a shift of some key Daesh assets from the region and into North Africa, more specifically Libya’s Sirte region. The migration of Daesh combatants from Syria/Iraq to Libya has led to a doubling in just a few months of the number of Daesh operatives arriving in the North African country. Some intelligence agencies report the presence of about 5,000 Daesh militants in Libya, up from what the CIA assessed to be 2,000 to 3,000 a few months ago. These figures highlight the strategic decision of IS leadership to use Libya as the North Africa, even Africa central platform of expansion. Indeed from there, it becomes easier to expand into the Sahel, West and East Africa, through links with regional Jihadi organizations, such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. And from there, Europe is near as well. The presence of IS in Sebratha although real is less strategic than Sirte.
The second reason as to why the Sebratha choice was surprising is in the decision to target Noureddine Chouchane. Although Chouchane is suspected of being behind two attacks in Tunisia last year, killing altogether 60 people, he is a much smaller figure, a figurehead of sort, in the Jihadi hierarchy than other IS leaders, specifically Abu Ali al-Anbari and Abu Omar al-Shishani. Al-Shishani, the red-bearded Chechen Islamic State commander arrived in Sirte early last week. These two men, along with a few others would have been more valuable targets.
So why Sebratah? The choice of Sebratha may have something to do with three factors: the proximity to Tunisia, the lack of a political strategy for a post-IS Sirte, and paving the way for a European intervention. In the first case, Tunisia, a country that has been under constant incursions and attacks from IS and other religious militants, is less than hour away from Sebratha. Tunisia has received political and military support from the West in terms of assuring some level of protection and as the IS forces continue to expand near the border, there has been a sense of urgency in seeking to degrade those forces before they inflict more damage to Tunisia. In this case, the bombing is more a reaction to what may come, as opposed to seeking the end of IS.
In the second case, one of the biggest problems facing the West is the lack of a sound political resolution to the Libyan crisis. Despite efforts from the UN and others, the political roadmap for Libya is compromised. A series of evaluation and contact missions in Libya from various foreign Special Forces were undertaken recently in an effort to identify the political groups that could take part to a stabilization process. However, sources say such missions found no suitable parties to work with. For instance, just like many other stakeholders, the Tripoli government is openly against a foreign intervention. GNC president Nuri Abusahmain, as well as Libya Dawn militias and the Tripoli Revolutionary Fighters, have on multiple occasions expressed their opposition to it. However, LNA leader General Khalifa Haftar is for a Western intervention, but only if coordinated with his forces. This could obviously lead to more tension. And so any bombing of IS in present conditions would make the situation even more dramatic.
The third factor is the likelihood that the US is paving the way for a European intervention, one that might even involve ground troops. It is unlikely that the US will send ground troops, but Italy, France and even the UK have been vocal about a direct intervention to block IS and control illegal migrations and could form the bulk of a West ground operation. The bombing of Sebratha is a first step to clear areas before a broader offensive takes place.
As we look ahead, we note that this first wave of bombing may have eliminated some 60 militants, but it does not represent a game changer per se. It provides Tunisia with a little more breathing room for a while and while the war against IS has been declared, the real battle has yet to be waged.
Over the coming weeks, we expect a substantial movement among the various militants, but we do not expect them to withdraw from the region. In fact, we expect some more extremist militants will join Libya anticipating a European direct involvement, while others will seek shelter elsewhere and that could cause additional strains on regional militaries. The IS position now evolves from fighting unpopular governments in the Arab world to confronting Western forces in the Maghreb.