By SULIMAN ALI ZWAY, KAREEM FAHIM and ERIC SCHMITT
JAN. 18, 2016
TRIPOLI, Libya — The American Special Operations forces expected a warm welcome when they landed at the Libyan air base where an allied militia was stationed. Instead, armed men from another militia at the base threatened to detain the commandos, forcing the Americans to evacuate.
The episode, on Dec. 14, highlighted the difficulties faced by the Obama administration as it engages in a search across Libya to find armed groups that can act as a ground force against the country’s increasingly potent branch of the Islamic State.
American and Libyan officials said the sudden departure of the group of 20 American commandos from Al Watiya air base last month was the result of a miscommunication between the militias stationed there. But the episode laid bare the lack of central authority in Libya, with no single government in charge and an army barely able to exert control over groups nominally under its command.
Counterterrorism officials regard the Libyan branch as the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate, one that is expanding its territory and continuing to mount deadly attacks, including several this month. But to stop its advance, the United States and its European allies have been forced to court unreliable allies from among a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe.
Gen. Khalifa Hifter in Libya in March 2015. His Libyan National Army is one of several armed factions vying for power. Credit Mohammed El-Sheikhy/Associated Press
The search carries particular risks for the Obama administration, which once relied on local militias to help protect the American diplomatic compound in the northeastern city of Benghazi. They failed to provide protection when militants overran the compound in September 2012, an attack that led to the deaths of the United States ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.
Analysts also warn that any foreign effort to empower individual proxy forces could fuel new rivalries as the United Nations tries to bring together Libya’s warring factions after years of civil war that followed the toppling of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011.
The mix-up at the base, about 70 miles from Tripoli, came during a time of growing alarm in Washington and in European capitals about the rise of the Islamic State’s wing in Libya. American spy agencies say the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has in the past few months redirected several hundred foreign fighters originally bound for Syria to its camps in Libya.
In November, an American airstrike killed the Islamic State’s senior leader in Libya, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi national who led Qaeda operations in western Iraq from 2004 until 2010, American officials said.
“The ISIL branch in Libya is one that is taking advantage of the deteriorating security conditions in Libya, putting itself in the position to coordinate ISIL efforts across North Africa,” Nicholas J. Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in an interview on C-Span last month.
Rescue workers responded to an oil tank fire in Ras Lanuf, Libya, caused by a bombing, one of several in the country this month. Credit Reuters
The United States is under pressure after a series of failed efforts to train and equip rebels in the region, particularly in Syria. The Pentagon abandoned a plan last year to arm and train newly formed groups of opposition fighters, and switched to another approach of arming and assisting existing Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State.
Over the last year, teams of Special Operations forces from the United States military’s Africa Command have traveled to Libya with several goals: to gather information about the situation, assess each faction’s fighting capability and any specific needs, and evaluate the groups’ ability to work with American and other allied troops, according to a senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the delicate missions.
Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, an Africa Command spokesman, said the mission of the American troops at Watiya was “to foster relationships and enhance communication with their counterparts in the Libyan National Army.”
In response to questions about the episode in December, John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, emphasized the Obama administration’s growing concerns about the Libyan branch of the Islamic State and said the American troops’ planned meeting at Watiya was “not an endorsement of any specific group.” He added that American officials over the past year “have actively engaged with a wide group of Libyans” to help encourage a political settlement there.
Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who frequently visits the country, said the standoff at the Watiya air base highlighted the particular difficulties of finding allies in Libya — not only “credible partners on the ground, but, more importantly, navigating the factional rivalries.”
Episodes of violence by ISIS or its affiliates in 2015
ISIS controls more than 150 miles of coastline around Surt
Area of detail
Source: Data on episodes of violence compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project based on news reports
By The New York Times
There are several armed factions in Libya other than the Islamic State, but each is at best an awkward partner to the West. The “Libyan National Army” referred to by American officials is just one of the groups vying for power. A military leader, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, gave the name to his forces and received after-the-fact authorization from an elected Parliament meeting in his region.
General Hifter has appeared at times to seek to rule Libya as a new strongman, though he has been unable to fully control even Benghazi, a few miles away from his headquarters.
His force includes regular army units, but he has increasingly relied on arming neighborhood militias outside his full control as his proxies. American military officials have previously expressed deep distrust of General Hifter and his allies.
Another group loosely allied with General Hifter is based in the western city of Zintan and controls the Watiya air base. The Zintani forces have in the past held control of the Tripoli International Airport and tried to intimidate lawmakers.
A third group — opposed to both General Hifter and the Zintanis — is based in the coastal city of Misurata, a few hours’ drive from the Islamic State stronghold in Surt. The Misuratis repeatedly sought to dominate Libya’s fledgling democratic institutions before the total breakdown of the political process in 2014, and more recently some among the Misurata forces have provided money and weapons to an anti-Hifter coalition in Benghazi that includes Islamic State fighters.
Wreckage of a vehicle after an attack by a suicide car bomber at a checkpoint near Misurata, Libya in May. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Credit Reuters
Over the past six months, American military teams have visited Misurata and established “military and intelligence” links, said Abdulrahman Swehli, an influential political figure in the city. “It is not a secret,” he said, adding that British, French and Italian operatives were also seeking such links with Libyan factions.
Libyan officials said the United States had longstanding ties with one of the militias stationed at Watiya, called Special Forces Battalion 22. A statement released by the battalion on Dec. 18 said the United States had been training the unit since 2012.
The training of the battalion had previously taken place at another base, called Camp 27, west of Tripoli, but was interrupted in 2013 when another militia overran the camp, said Col. Idris Mohamed Madi, the commander of the operations room at Watiya. Training resumed at Watiya about three months ago, he said.
When the Americans arrived last month, another militia stationed at Watiya, apparently unaware of the visit, “harassed” and tried to arrest the Americans, according to Battalion 22.
Colonel Madi said fighters at the base had received no “official correspondence” about a visiting foreign delegation.
“That is a normal thing to happen in a country like Libya,” he said.
Mr. Wehrey, who interviewed the commander of Battalion 22 in 2013, said recruits in the force appeared to be drawn from only one region in the west of the country, exposing possible dangers in the American approach.
A policy of empowering such groups may satisfy a short-term objective, he said, but it risks making it harder to build “a cohesive national army that represents all of Libya’s tribes and regions.”
Suliman Ali Zway reported from Tripoli, Kareem Fahim from Cairo, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from London.