Libya, the Italian involvement in the intervention against Daesh

Libya is increasingly becoming the new focal point of the war against Daesh. U.S. and French Special Forces are reported to be engaged in the fighting there, and Italy has decided to allow drone operations to be launched from the Naval Air Station Sigonella.

The instability generated by the 2011 civil war and the absence of a central state control over the territory have contributed to the emergence of Daesh in the country. As in Iraq and Syria, the self-proclaimed Caliphate succeeded in obtaining the favor of citizens through the distribution of charities. Its penetration started in summer 2014 with the conquest of Derna, a little coastal town not far from the Egypt border. When the black militias arrived in Derna, the city was already occupied by many jihadist militias, such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade. However, the toughest actors operating at that moment were the Islamic Youth, a Daesh-affiliated group, and the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, economically supported by the Libyan Ministry of Defense.[1] Some of those organizations, such as the Rafallah Sahati Brigade, have pledged their alliance to Daesh. During the years of Gaddafi’s regime, those organizations were almost dismantled, but after the Colonel’s defeat they gained back their power and proliferated in the Cyrenaica region, and especially in Derna, Bayda, and Benghazi.[2]

Daesh’s achievements in Libya were due to the ability to draw on the main tribe leaders’ approval. This capacity was particularly useful for conquering another strategic Libyan stronghold, Sirte.[3] The successful annexation of Sirte encouraged the jihadist expansion in the Fezzan territory and in the western part of Tripolitania, especially the cities of Sabratha and Zuwarah. Libya’s southern part represents a crucial source of supplies. Here, illegal traffics are common and allow Daesh to earn money to fund its survival necessities. For the same reason, Daesh has been menacing seizing the main oil fields of the region as to take over the production and sale that oil through its own illegal channels. These plans explain the recent attacks to the oil fields of Bin Jawad, as Sidr, and Ra’s Lanuf and the safety measures applied since 2012 to protect the most important Libyan energy infrastructures. In this sense, the Libyan Petroleum Facilities Guard plays a very important role and allows facilities to continue to operate albeit the climate of instability. The economic issue is crucial for the alleged caliphate.[4]

The almost compromised situation of instability the country is experiencing threatens the political and economic security of the Libyan government and affects negatively European economic interests in the country. Looking at Italian interests in the region, Italian energy giant Eni operates uninterruptedly in the region since 1959 and has the authorization to exploit its many deposits, two of which are gas deposits whose gas is conveyed to the compressor stations of Mellitah and sent to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline. Italy is thus one of the most interested countries in the resolution of the Libyan conflict and plays a significant role in an international intervention together with France and the United Kingdom.

Within the framework of a mission in Libya, Italy has proposed to focus on the Tripolitania areas and on supporting the formation of a new government of national unity. The conditions of the Italian intervention in the Libyan crisis were debated in the meeting of the Italian Supreme Defense Council, called for at the end of February by the President of Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella. What emerged from that meeting was the belief that no intervention would be authorized before the establishment of a national unity government: at that moment, this possibility seemed to be remote, because the UN-designed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has not yet won the confidence of Parliaments. President Mattarella repeated that this is the condicio sine qua non to a military intervention in the country: that way, Italy would be able to defend the economic agreement existing between the two countries.

Italy would be willing to play an active role in a possible mission and intervene on the side of the British, French and U.S. forces in Libya. Nevertheless, the exploitation of the Naval Air Station Sigonella as a launching point for drones has been a matter of concern. Eventually, Italy has given its reluctant consent under the pressures the U.S. government exerted over the issue, but this consent is conditional. Firstly, drones can fly from Sigonella only for support actions or within defense missions, and these missions must be pre-emptively approved by the allies. Secondly, flights also must be pre-emptively authorized by the Italian Supreme Defense Council. Sigonella is a strategic hub and allows the United States to ensure the safety of its soldiers by collecting information, but given its commitment in the mission Italy is exposed to many threats and thus has to guarantee its interests as well.

The long and exhausting negotiations significantly reduced the number of partners willing to join the mission. As of now, they are thirteen: in addition to the United States and Italy, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia declared to be willing to contribute. The mission appears to be one of the most expensive programs in the Atlantic Alliance’s history.

So far, it has been noticed that the United Nations overestimated the capacity of the two Libyan Parliaments to come to a shared solution and failed in consider the importance of involving in negotiations the more influential tribe leaders. Without them taking part to the negotiation process, a durable national unity government is unachievable. Clearly, no one is willing to suffer the consequences of decisions that others took without consulting them. Above all, this situation could exacerbate an anti-western feeling and tribes, generally divided in their intents, could find common ground to stick together against the Western intruder. And this could encourage the influx of jihadi fighters from North Africa, Middle East, and Europe willing to participate in the fight. A credible national reconciliation process must include every participant that has a role in determining the country’s stability; without this condition, every attempt to solve the Libyan crisis will fail.

To reach this goal, the international community should involve in the dialogues the various components of the Libyan political scene, including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), thus diluting the competitive trends of the various partners. The rise of Daesh poses a significant challenge not only to the MB in Libya but also to Salafist factions, including LIFG and its offshoots. The radical narrative and propaganda of the “Caliphate” is also compared to the gradualist approach of the MB. This has implication in terms of recruitment. And Derna is a good example of how Daesh loyalists steadily advanced.[5]

The necessity for such a strategic widening is increasingly clear to the key European players in the Mediterranean Sea. Speaking at a conference on Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on February 18, 2016, Mr. Bruno Tertrais of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris made this point quite forcefully. He said that the imperatives are both strategic and political. Given the centrality of the terror threat, Europe cannot tolerate the emergence and spread of an “Islamic” State of that sort not far from European shores.

About the Italian presence in the mission, efforts will have to be commensurate to the size of the threat.[6]

Giorgia P. Giorgi

Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)


[1] Ashour, Omar. “Between ISIS and a failed state: The saga of Libyan Islamists,” Rethinking Political Islam Series (The Brookings Institution), August 2015.

[2] Hagger, Nicholas. The Libyan Revolution: Its Origins and Legacy. A Memoir and Assessment. London: John Hunt Publishing, 2009.

[3] El-Amrani, Issandr. “How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?,” Foreign Policy, February 18, 2016.

[4] “The origins of ISIS is Libya and its methodology,” The Maghrebi Note, March 8, 2015.

[5] Ashour, Omar. “Between ISIS and a failed state: The saga of Libyan Islamists,” Rethinking Political Islam Series (The Brookings Institution), August 2015.

[6] Lerman, Eran. “Libya: The Next Frontier?,” Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, February 29, 2016.

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