The United States, Libya, and the Tangled Web We Weave
The Trump Administration may not believe the United States has a role to play in Libya outside of defeating the Islamic State, as Trump stated on 20 April, but history demonstrates Libya is critically important to our national security. Libya’s importance lies in its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea, historical influence in foreign affairs, and breeding ground for terrorism.
The United States’ role in Libya has been long and fraught with conflict. Years of positive and productive foreign relations have been few and far between, and it is essential to understand the past before making decisions about America’s involvement in Libya’s future. From the very founding of this nation, Tripoli has posed a national security risk to the United States, and if Libya is left to its current state, it will almost certainly continue to do so for generations to come.
It began with the Barbary pirates in the late 1700’s.
At the end of the 1700’s, the new U.S. Congress appointed representatives to negotiate treaties, including with the autonomous Barbary State of Tripoli. The Barbary powers demanded annual payments, but in 1801 newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson refused to make payment, and the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. The first Barbary war against Tripoli lasted four years, until 1805. The war against Tripoli included a daring maritime operation to rescue the men of the USS Philadelphia from Tripoli harbor in 1804, and the brave actions of the U.S. Marines that helped end the war prompted the line in the Marine Corps hymn “to the shores of Tripoli.”
Ottomans continued to control the Barbary States until the war with Italy in 1911-1912, after which Tripoli and its provinces became the Italian colony of Libya and set the stage for the next major confrontation with America: World War Two.
Italy entered the war in 1940, and the North Africa campaign began soon after against Allied forces near the Libya-Egypt border. Germany’s notorious Afrika Korps entered the campaign in early 1941, and Axis forces gained ground in eastern Libya, pushing the Allies back into Egypt. The U.S. joined the campaign in 1942 and Allies soon regained the advantage and drove the Afrika Korps across Libya into Tunisia where U.S. forces suffered a major defeat in battle before the Allies ultimately won the campaign in 1943. The U.S. alone sustained more than 18,000 casualties.
Following the war, the U.S. military took control of Wheelus airbase near Tripoli because of its strategic location in the region (it is now known as Mitiga). The U.S. military evacuated in 1970 shortly after Muammar al-Qaddafi seized control of the entire country in a coup.
Qaddafi soon began using terrorism as a tool to achieve his foreign policy goals. He supported a variety of terrorist groups, hosted training camps in Libya, created a chemical weapons program, assassinated Libyan dissidents, and was particularly hostile towards the U.S. and Israel. He conducted the bulk of his state-sponsorship of terrorism in the 1980s.
Libyan-sponsored terrorists conducted a series of attacks against the U.S. in 1985-1986. In December 1985, Libyan-sponsored terrorists conducted simultaneous attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports, killing five Americans. In March 1986, the U.S. Navy sunk several Libyan boats during clashes in the Gulf of Sidra. On 05 April 1986, Libyan terrorists bombed La Belle nightclub in Berlin, Germany, frequented by U.S. service members; two were killed and more than 200 wounded, including U.S. service members.
The U.S. responded to the series of attack by conducting air strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi on 15 April 1986 in Libya, dubbed Operation El Dorado Canyon. The strikes killed Qaddafi’s infant daughter and fifteen civilians and injured two of his sons.
Libyan terrorists then conducted the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, which remains one of the deadliest terrorist attacks against Americans. In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on a flight from London to New York. It killed 259 people on the flight, including 189 Americans, and 11 more on the ground. Libya-sponsored terrorists conducted at least two additional airline attacks: the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73, which killed Americans, and the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Qaddafi began attempts to reconcile with the West and make reparations, and by 2004 the U.S. resumed a diplomatic presence in Tripoli; in 2006 it removed Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Renewed relations between the U.S. and Libya were going relatively well, but then came the Arab Spring and the former Obama Administration’s intervention. The Arab Spring spread to Libya in February 2011, when protestors gathered in Benghazi demonstrating against Qaddafi. The Revolution quickly spread, and Qaddafi retaliated against the rebels. Then in stepped the U.S.
Putting aside questions of the legality of U.S. war powers in Libya, in which the former Administration claimed bombing it was not “hostile,” the U.S. spearheaded U.N. security council resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011 authorizing a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. Two days later, the U.S. led NATO operation began, and in October 2011 Libyan rebel forces killed Qaddafi.
A year later in September 2012, Libyan terrorists killed the U.S. Ambassador, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and two CIA security officers during attacks against the U.S. Temporary Mission Facility and Annex in Benghazi.
The U.S. remained in Tripoli, however, for nearly two years after the attacks, but in July 2014 Libyan militias began the civil war. Operation Dawn, led by the Misratans and Islamists, bombed Tripoli International Airport and indirect fire hit on and around the U.S. Embassy facilities. It prompted a harrowing, all-out, 26-hour U.S. evacuation that came after being trapped in the city for two weeks while the former Administration debated what to do.
The former Administration waited another two years before it then bombed Libya once again in late 2016 and early 2017, striking Islamic State targets in Sirte.
And now, Libya is a mess and calls for assistance abound. It would be wise to consider the past, however, and whether a U.S. presence is needed inside country before deciding on a course of action. There are many roles besides a military one.
Libyans have attacked the U.S. presence in Libya at least five times in the last six years alone. Libyans have a demonstrated history of attacking, overrunning or burning numerous foreign diplomatic facilities in the country. If U.S. forces continue to remain on the ground in Libya, the Trump Administration has a responsibility to them and should have a concrete purpose and long-term gain in risking their lives. The former Administration failed in that endeavor.
History demonstrates that Libyan policy is often at odds with American policy and Libyans are willing to respond with war, terrorism, asymmetric warfare, or other means necessary to achieve their goals.
Libya in the wrong hands, terrorist-leaning hands, could once again do a great deal of damage to the U.S. and the world. Prominent politicians with past international terrorism ties hold influential positions in Libya and the current U.N.-brokered government reportedly unwittingly sent terrorists to Europe. An end to the civil war that sees Libya return as a state sponsor of terrorism, with a different Qaddafi in charge, is not outside the realm of possibility and should be of utmost concern.
S.M. Carlson served as a terrorism expert with the U.S. government for more than twelve years, including in the CIA. She specializes in the Middle East and North Africa. She served at the U.S. Mission in Tripoli, Libya, and helped conduct the full-scale U.S. evacuation.