Lessons from Libya

I see that another Canadian has died fighting in what he believed to be a legitimate jihad overseas, this time in Libya.   Owais Egwilla joins a not so illustrious list of fellow citizens including Ali Dirie, Andre Poulin, Vilyam Plotnikov, Abdelrahman Jabarah, Salman Ashrafi, Damian Clairmont and – unfortunately – many others.  Their graves, if they have one, lie in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Dagestan, Syria and other farflung places not normally associated with Canadians.  All were attracted by what they believed to be a noble and even divine cause only to give their lives for little obvious purpose.

The Egwilla case has some interesting aspects to it: he was a former university student in Ottawa, he was taken to Libya by his father, and was encouraged by that same father, as were others, to join jihad (according to dad “Jihad today is simple and easily accessible, and does not require moving as in the past, as it was for Afghanistan and Iraq.”).  I guess you could day that by becoming a martyr the younger Egwilla fulfilled his father’s wishes (Stewart Bell’s article in the National Post on this case can be read here).  If only Egwilla the Elder had been a doctor…

To me, however, the bigger issue is the disaster that is Libya and the siren call beckoning jihadis like Mr. Egwilla to travel to North Africa.  Recall that Canada and other nations took part in an air campaign launched ostensibly to protect civilians from the wrath of former dictator Muamar Ghaddhafi, who ended up beaten to death by enraged citizens when his regime fell apart.  The aftermath has been chaotic and lawless to say the least.  There are two competing governments that the UN is trying to convince to cooperate, so far with little success.  There are untold militias and armies vying for territory and influence.  And, probably most importantly, there are an estimated 5,000 Islamic State fighters who have established a wilayet (province) along the Mediterranean and now threaten attacks in southern Europe.

Here is the conundrum we face, one of our own making to a large extent.  We got rid of Ghaddhafi, a violent strongman in his day and a meddler in the affairs of his neighbours and others.  And yet the vacuum created has been filled by any number of actors, none of whom seem to have Libya’s best interests in mind, and provided IS a haven to flee to from the Levant.  We could say the same happened in Iraq post Saddam Hussein.

I am not advocating that we sit back and do nothing about regimes that brutalise their own people.  International conscience demands that we do something (remember the old R2P – responsibility to protect doctrine?).  But our actions have been incomplete: we are very good at removing bad guys but terrible at remaking ruined societies from scratch.  Some would argue, and I think they have a point, that nation building is not our job and can only effectively be carried out by the locals, perhaps with a little help  (how much did we spend in Afghanistan and what did we get for our investment?).  Should we not, however, ask ourselves whether the laudable overthrow of a dictator is actually helpful in the short-, medium- and long-term?  Should we not figure out whether there are credible groups and leaders ready to fill the void and who will help to construct a fair and equitable society?  We have certainly been burned by self-styled patriots who talk a good game but go on to abuse conditions once we bomb and go home.

The rise of IS in Libya is undoubtedly an indirect result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a direct result of the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011.  Again, both led to the disappearance of heinous regimes, but the empty shells left behind are anything but stable, free and prosperous countries today.

What will the next campaign target?  Which vile overlord is in the queue for elimination?  I am not criticising the motives or the genuine desire to do good.  I am merely pointing out that we do not have a good “day after” plan.  In the absence of such, terrorist groups will arise and expand and use their new-found territory to plan attacks locally, regionally and internationally.  This will lead to calls for more action which will take us to more failed states.  A bizarre form of Groundhog Day.  Is this what we want?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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