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Whack-a-Terrorist in Libya

Paul R. Pillar

Libya Terrorism, Middle East

The “next front against Islamic State,” as a headline in The Economist puts it, appears to be Libya. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, had talks last month with his French counterpart with an eye toward taking “decisive military action” against ISIS. Regardless of how far such planning may or may not have come already, it is not surprising to hear such talk, given that ISIS reportedly has established as large a presence in Libya—a real, material presence, and not just one defined in terms of expressions of sympathy or allegiance—as it has anywhere outside of Iraq and Syria. Opening up a real military front against it with Western armed forces might seem to be an appropriate going to where the action is, but it also would perpetuate a fundamentally flawed conception of counterterrorism as revolving around military offensives against whatever presence on the ground has been established by whatever radical group currently worries us the most.

This conception embodies the fallacy that control of a patch of distant real estate is to be equated with threats of terrorist attacks against the West and especially the United States. Even if the connection between distant real estate and proximate terrorism were greater than it really is, there is the further common but also fallacious corollary that whatever particular patch has most recently caught our attention is somehow more significant than other patches, including ones that have not yet come into being or gotten headlines as well as ones that have. The case of ISIS in Libya ought itself to demonstrate the misguided nature of this corollary, showing as it does that the ISIS enclave in Iraq and Syria is not really as special in the world of counterterrorism or even in the world of ISIS as it has generally been regarded for most of the last couple of years. Similarly, the establishment of that prominent enclave belies the previously presumed special nature of the redoubt in Afghanistan of the Al-Qaeda group from which ISIS broke away. Other Al-Qaeda off-shoots, notably the one in Yemen, demonstrate the same thing.

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