Islamist terrorists are running loose in Libya. Why isn't the US paying attention?
Qaddafi has released hundreds of jailed Islamist terrorists now poised to exploit Libya’s chaos, directly threatening the US. Some even have ties to Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban. Where are they now? What are they doing? Washington must answer these questions immediately.
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Qaddafi's half-baked release of militant Islamists
With this reality, Qaddafi’s ill-conceived and half-baked release of Islamist fighters over the past couple years is now a major concern for the international community. Hundreds of Islamist fighters who were recently in jail have been released in the past couple of years as beneficiaries of Libya’s haphazard rehabilitation program and this includes committed militants, many of whom have previously participated in violence.Skip to next paragraph
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The number of once-jailed Islamists at-large is even higher as the regime unwisely released more prisoners this year in a vain attempt to quell the uprising before it took hold – and more have escaped from prison as fighting broke out. Militant Islamists freed by Qaddafi and those who escaped from prison are now operating amid a raging civil war. There is now little – and rapidly evaporating – state control over a space that has a great deal of small arms and under-guarded stocks of chemical warfare agents.
Who makes up Libyan opposition?
Where are these Islamists now? And what are they doing? These are the questions that Washington must find answers to immediately. While there’s no doubt that not all of the Islamists who were released are a threat to the United States, there needs to be better information shared about who was let out and why they were in originally put in prison.
We know next to nothing about the composition of Libya’s opposition. Over the last few weeks, a number of media stories have reported on Islamist extremists fighting alongside the rebels. European newspapers have even quoted Libyan rebel commanders as stating that some of their fighters have links to Al Qaeda, including ones who have allegedly fought against Western forces in Afghanistan.
Very clearly, such elements of the opposition do not share long-term US goals in Libya and present a lurking danger for the US as we get further enmeshed in the future of the country.
Risk is clear: Washington needs to act
As Libya descends deeper into chaos, the risk stemming from Islamist fighters on the loose goes up: Violent extremists find fertile ground in weak and failing states for planning terrorist attacks abroad. Even if Qaddafi manages to cling to power, the issue of Islamists working at large in Libya will still be a major problem, and the United States can’t take its eyes off this threat. We must work now to stanch this little seen danger.
Washington needs to do everything in its power to ensure that any future Libyan government is a partner in fighting terrorism. And thinking beyond Libya, the Obama administration should do more to support, finance, and ensure that countries abide by the world’s best practices in disengagement and rehabilitation programs for extremists. Such practices include comprehensive post-release monitoring and reintegration support, which are a far cry from Libya’s politically motivated, perilous release of Islamists who now threaten Libyan and US security.
Christopher Boucek is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.