American Military Strategy in Libya

October 4, 2015
American Military Strategy in Libya
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

September 11 now unfortunately marks not only the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but also the assassination of the U.S. Ambassador in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in an attack on the U.S. Temporary Mission Facility and the CIA Annex by militias affiliated with Al Qaeda, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Abu Abaydah Ibn Jarah Batallion (UJB), Ansar al-Sharia (AAS), and the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN). The number of terrorist groups working together on an operation is surprising, and served as a clear warning to the U.S. of the threat to its nationals from the unrest in Libya.

The Benghazi attack remains very controversial in the U.S. Before 2012, no U.S. ambassador had been killed by terrorists since an attack in Afghanistan in 1979. Security at the Temporary Mission Facility was clearly lacking, despite intelligence indicating imminent attacks, and there was also little available close air support. To make sense of what had happened, the U.S. House of Representatives created a Select Committee on Benghazi, which, as of writing, has yet to submit its report. A particularly sensitive point is the role of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in ensuring the provision of adequate security arrangements for State Department personnel in Libya. The projected release of the report at the same time as the 2016 presidential election primaries is likely not coincidental, and could potentially have a damaging effect on Clinton’s bid. An interim report of the Select Committee from May 2015 also cites an unwillingness of the Executive Branch to cooperate with the investigation, especially in turning over transcripts of Clinton’s e-mails regarding Benghazi.

The Benghazi attack controversy is the most visible manifestation of the American involvement in Libya since the 2011 intervention. In many analyses regarding the U.S. role in 2011, there was a tendency to downplay the contribution of France and the UK to argue that the U.S. did much more than is commonly believed. A Time Magazine article from February 2014 even went so far as to suggest that America’s decision to ‘lead from behind’, was a bad one, and that it should have taken more of an active role. The slight against the contribution of European NATO allies is manifest, as it indicates that their efforts were ineffective. While American media sources have a tendency to criticize European allies, however, official American sources tell a different story, indicating that the cooperation with France and the UK was welcome and seen as very useful for the operation.

American Military Strategy in Libya since the Benghazi Attacks

The U.S., like France and the UK, has not engaged in a major intervention in Libya since 2011, despite the significant deterioration in security since 2014 with the start of the three-way civil war between the forces of Operation Dignity (based on the Tobruk House of Representatives) and Operation Dawn (based in Tripoli), and a number of jihadist groups and other militias, most notably Daesh and Ansar al-Sharia. American forces, have, on the other hand, been willing to undertake limited operations in the country since 2014.

While Africa in general has never really been a major priority for the American military, Libya, on the other hand, worried the U.S. for nearly thirty years due to former dictator Qaddafi’s support for terrorist groups and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Much of the U.S.’s pre-9/11 counterterrorism policy was formulated in January 1986 after bombings in the Rome and Vienna airports by terrorists sponsored by Qaddafi.[1] A subsequent bombing in a Berlin discotheque in April 1986 resulted in the American air attack on Libya on 14 April. Relations with Libya did not improve into the 1990s, though Qaddafi’s willingness to abandon his WMD program after 2003 led the U.S. government to remove Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2007.

Actions in Libya fall under the authority of the U.S.’s Africa Command (AFRICOM).[2] AFRICOM, created in 2008, is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, and covers all of the countries on the continent with the exception of Egypt.[3] Unlike most of the other combatant commands, AFRICOM’s permanent bases are almost all located in Europe, with the exception of Djibouti. AFRICOM was created to both take the burden off of European Command (EUCOM) for dealing with the region as well as being a recognition of the fact that increasing security problems on the continent could potentially affect American national security.

In March 2014, highlighting the rise of extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in Libya, AFRICOM Commander, General David Rodriguez, told the House Armed Services Committee that U.S. strategy in Libya was to participate ‘in a multinational effort to support modest defense institution building and the development of security forces’, a Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission.[4] This statement came before the escalation in the civil war in 2014. In the 2015 posture statement, the AFRICOM commander was much more concerned with Libya.[5] He stated that the threats from Libya ‘have the highest potential among security challenges on the continent to increase risks to U.S. and European strategic interests in the next two years and beyond’. Libya is becoming a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists, and the U.S. is very concerned about the rise of Daesh in the country. AFRICOM claims that the situation in Libya has created a ‘regional humanitarian crisis’, which threatens the entire region as well as Europe, but poses the greatest threat to the stability of neighboring Tunisia. AFRICOM’s strategy for Libya in 2015 is similar to that of France: containment of the civil war, interdiction of drug, foreign fighter and weapons trafficking and helping Libya build new security institutions. What is different, however, is that while ruling out direct intervention, AFRICOM states that a part of the mission is ‘disrupting the violent extremist networks within [Libya]’. The statement implies covert or limited strike operations inside Libya, which have been a part of the U.S. strategy since 2014. It is a risky strategy, which could result eventually in U.S. casualties in Libya, and could lead the American public and politicians to ask more questions about the U.S. involvement in the country. A public inquiry into American military activities in Libya could potentially affect next year’s elections.

What types of operations has the U.S. carried out in Libya? There were three known actions since 2014: the capture of Abu Khattala, cooperation with an Algerian Special Forces operation in 2014, and a 2015 air raid that killed a major terrorist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

One of the most important shows of force by the American military since 2011 was the capture of Abu Khattala by U.S. Special Forces in Benghazi in June 2014. Khattala, a member of Ansar al-Sharia, is thought to have been one of the commanders of the attacks in Benghazi in September 2012, and his capture represents a major success for American Special Forces (SOF).[6] SOF have been an increasingly large part of American strategy since the significant successes in the Iraq War, which included the destruction of the network of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.[7]

As mentioned in a previous post on France and Libya, American Special Forces also likely worked with Algerian Special Forces in operations in southern Libya in May-June 2014. It does not come as a large suprise, however, as American counterterrorism trainers have been working with North African armies for some time in the context of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), launched in 2005. According to the White House in August 2014, TSCTP has been useful in helping create additional capacities in both Mali and Tunisia’s security forces. The main adversaries for TSCTP are AQIM and Ansar-al-Sharia (though Daesh has very likely been added to the list since the last strategy statements of TSCTP).

In May 2015, delegates from the House of Representatives in Tobruk, affiliated with Operation Dignity, went to Washington to essentially ask the U.S. to take their side in the civil war, as well as to help them in the fight against jihadist groups. General Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of Operation Dignity, defied Qaddafi during the battles in Chad in the 1980s, and is a U.S. citizen, who lived for many years in Virginia. It is not known whether the U.S. have given direct aid to Tobruk, but U.S. involvement in the country has again been stepped up, most notably with an airstrike that may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the head of Al-Murabitoun, an AQIM splinter group, and one of the most-wanted terrorists.

The strike on Belmokhtar was interesting for several reasons. First, it was carried out by F-15 fighter aircraft, and not by drones, unlike much of the campaign against terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2009.[8] On the other hand, the U.S. government has been recently looking for a North African base to station drones for strikes against Daesh targets in Libya. The current American drone bases in southern Niger (where the U.S. cooperates with French forces) are apparently too far away for effective operations in Libya. Second, it shows that the U.S. is extending at least partially the air war against Daesh to a new theater of operations, which will necessitate more support forces in place, as well as local allies. For the moment, there is no clearly defined U.S. ally fighting Daesh on the ground in Libya as is the case with the Iraqi Army. This may force the U.S. to heed the calls by Tobruk for a real alliance in the coming months. Third, it indicates that the U.S. believes airstrikes are the best way to deal with terrorist organizations in Africa, as this is the tactic used against what is considered as the  primary threat to American interests in Africa, Al-Shabab. U.S. airstrikes in Somalia date back at least as far as 2007, when an AC-130 gunship was used to hit Al Qaeda targets near the Kenyan border. The U.S. has been attacking Al-Shabab targets since 2012, with the most recent known airstrike against a Shabab leader in January 2015.

Is this the beginning of a new, sustained U.S. air campaign in Libya? It is not certain, as the effectiveness of the campaign against Daesh in Syria and in Iraq since 2014 is still unclear. Problems need to be overcome, such as basing rights and finding a reliable local ally. As mentioned in a previous post, France would likely be willing to participate in a larger campaign in Libya, which would take some of the burden off American forces. A limited air campaign, even with several countries involved, however, brings back the fundamental problem of the 2011 war. Despite the fall of the Qaddafi government, little was done to prepare for the next steps, and the country was left open to the infiltration of jihadist groups and factional strife. Airstrikes may be useful in that important terrorist leaders like Belmokhtar can be eliminated, but they will not solve the fundamental political problems facing the country. To achieve lasting security in Libya, the U.S., along with its European allies, and France in particular, needs to give active support to a faction to conclude the civil war, defeat the jihadist groups, reestablish control over the country with some measure of political legitimacy, and secure the borders. The Arab League, in its agreement to militarily support Tobruk in August 2015, may already be coming to this conclusion. In the meantime, General Haftar launched another military offensive in September 2015 aimed at retaking Benghazi from the jihadists, ‘Operation Doom’. The U.S. and France have not reacted, as the Syrian situation seems to be taking precedence over all other foreign policy issues, but the UN condemned Haftar’s actions, as they came right before the signing of a UN-brokered peace deal.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously spoke out against U.S. involvement in nation building in 2003, but the failure of the 2011 air war to bring about a durable political solution makes it necessary to create the conditions for security in Libya so as to protect the national security of the U.S.



[1] President Ronald Reagan, ‘Acting Against Libyan Support of International Terrorism’, National Security Decision Directive Number 205 (8 January 1986). This document was followed up by National Security Decision Directive Number 207 (20 January 1986), which, among other things, set out the policy of ‘no-concessions’ to terrorists, which is often cited in popular media as the fact that the U.S. government does not negotiate with terrorists. Both documents can be found online at the National Security Archive.

[2] The U.S. military divides the world into geographical and functional combatant commands.

[3] Egypt is part of Central Command (CENTCOM).

[4] House Armed Services Committee, ‘Statement of General David M. Rodriguez, USA, Commander, United States Africa Command, before the House Armed Services Committee, Posture Hearing’, (5 March 2014), 10.

[5] AFRICOM, however, still considers the major terrorist threat in Africa to be Al-Shabab in Somalia.

[6] Abu Khattala’s trial in Federal District Court was in preparation at the time of writing due to a number of delays, including the release of classified material to the defense team.

[7] Michael T. Flynn, Rich Juergens and Thomas L. Cantrell, ‘Employing ISR: SOF best practices’, Joint Forces Quarterly 50 (2008), 56-61. See also Colin Jackson and Austin Long, ‘The Fifth Service: The rise of Special Operations Command’, in Harvey M. Sapolsky, Benjamin H. Friedman and Brendan Rittenhouse Green (eds.), U.S. Military Innovation since the Cold War: Creation without Destruction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 136-154

[8] There is a great deal of research available on the drone campaigns of the Obama administration. A useful recent analytical approach to the problem can be found in the edited volume: Mike Aaronson, Wali Aslam, Tom Dyson and Regina Rauxloh (eds.), Precision Strike Warfare and International Intervention: Strategic, Ethico-Legal, and Decisional Implications (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).