Conventional wisdom suggests that Islamic State and its affiliates have mastered social media. Yet the group’s real talent lies in dominating the traditional media cycle and using sensational violence to goad its enemies into overreactions.
Hours after Isis released one of its more gruesome videos showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on the shores of Sirte, Egyptian fighter jets pummelled several Isis targets in Derna. The Egyptians claim to be fighting the terrorists by propping up General Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist Operation Dignity. However, if the Egyptians want a UN-resolution authorising international military intervention in Libya, this must be resisted. It will only polarise Libya’s political spectrum even further, creating a vacuum in which terrorism can flourish.
Most Libyans, especially those connected to the Islamist-aligned Libya Dawn, remain loath to see foreigners interfere in their domestic affairs. But while siding with Egypt is not the way forward, Europe cannot simply ignore Isis’s presence in Libya. Similarly, the United States cannot ignore the fact that the terrorist group they have dedicated so many resources to fighting in Iraq and Syria has spread to one of the most vulnerable and porous countries in the region.
Internally, much of Libya’s highly divided society now has a common enemy in Isis. The loose Libya Dawn coalition is fracturing between hardliners who support any group fighting General Khalifa Haftar – including Isis – and those who see their own hometowns at threat from Isis. Likewise, in the Operation Dignity camp, there are those who see all members of Libya Dawn as terrorists. If moderates from both sides could come together and form an alliance, with the help of the UN, a unified national government could start to form.
If the West decides to support one particular Libyan side, aligning our policy with Egypt’s, Libyan moderates stand to lose. Any successful international force in Libya would need to be subject to agreements emanating from UN-sponsored talks among Libyan actors. A stabilisation force only has a chance at success if it breaches the political chasm between Libya Dawn and Operation Dignity. Rather than simply fighting the jihadists, the West should employ such a force to support a national unity government, instigate a ceasefire and protect Libyan infrastructure.
The threat from Isis will not be defeated overnight. Only Libyans can fix the the fractures in their political spectrum in which terrorism thrives. All the West can do is attempt to box out destabilising actors and help facilitate a coalition of moderates.
Lydia Sizer is a consultant on North African affairs based in the UAE. She previously served as a Libya Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State from 2012-2014.