Atlantico speaks with Alain Rodier, a retired senior-ranking officer of the French Intelligence service, and currently the Deputy Director of the French Centre for Intelligence Research (CF2R). Rodier is an expert in the fields of Islamic terrorism and organized crime.
Britain has announced its intention to bomb the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. What will Britain's role be in the coalition? Will Britain's involvement change anything?
The Brits have already taken part in coalition operations in Iraq. Their involvement has included Tornado fighter-bomber sorties, and special forces operations. Expanding their zone of operations to Syria is no different – except that ISIL will now be hit by more bombs.
The USA is now debating the idea of a limited ground intervention. What does that actually mean?
American Republicans favor a ground intervention, but the Democrats have a lot of doubts about that. However, current American operations only amount to an increase in manning and equipping of their special forces. What is changing is the purpose to which these forces will be put. If previously everything was limited to the level of providing instructors only, those same instructors will now be directly involved in the fighting themselves. They've already carried out at least one operation in Syria and Iraq – and perhaps more than one, but as you can understand, it's all top secret.
Their aim is to rattle the ISIL ranks – but that is exactly what the ISIL leadership has been waiting for. They have even challenged the Western troops to come and take them on, on the ground. They aim to lure Western troops into taking losses and being taken prisoner – which will lead to further media propaganda, and on-camera executions. The idea behind all this is carefully calculated – to show the whole Islamic world that ISIL alone is unperturbed by the Americans (and the West) – and this, they hope, will net them a host of new supporters.
The West is bombing Syria and Iraq – but no-one is taking the slightest interest in Libya, despite the ISIL extremist presence there. What's behind that? Who has the resources to be able to operate simultaneously in multiple locations?
Well, the Americans definitely have such resources. And I should add that they are not afraid of carrying out pinpoint operations – like the one on 13 November which took out the ISIL Iraqi commander Abu Nadil, notoriously responsible for the murder of 21 Egyptian Copts in the early part of this year. Yet in the background the American Presidential Elections continue as planned for 2016, and barring any unprecedented incidents – such as a large-scale terror attack within the USA – American military operations are slated to continue at their present level until the new American administration takes over in January 2017.
The Europeans have launched a naval operation which is aimed at stamping out the trafficking of migrants. There have already been some successes, but they need to devote more resources to this to have any hope of greater successes. The British and French are already running out of resources, the Italians and Spanish have very restricted military power available for it, while the Germans are making plans to mobilize a strong military force on the Syrian & Iraqi front. The rest of the nations of Europe simply don't have similar naval assault capabilities.
Libya's neighbors are spending more time thinking about protecting their territory and borders from terror attacks than any ideas of pro-active assault, even if it were a joint assault. That's why there's no-one currently burning with enthusiasm to start rattling this 'wasps nest' as our Ministry of Defense calls it. We can only wait and see.
The Libyan question arises because there is now an active realignment of forces going on in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, President Hollande, in particular, has called on the EU to lighten France's burden in the wars in the Middle East and Africa. Could that request lead to the cards being reshuffled?
There's a simple answer to that – that in the short and medium term, nothing is going to change.
ISIL radicals have assumed responsibility for a series of terror attacks both in Libya and beyond its borders – for example, in Tunis. Why is that we see no reaction to these events from Western powers? Is there no interest in such attacks from France, the UK, the USA, neighboring powers, or even from Russia?
It all comes back to the same question of a lack of resources. Tunisia, of course, is a favorite goal of terror groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL. Destabilizing the state there would be quite realistic, especially since the Muslim Brotherhood are lying ready, and just waiting for the right moment. The Tunisian army could be helped, if specialized instructors were sent there to train them in counter-terrorism operations. However, it's probably a greater priority to provide economic aid to Tunisia – whose economy is in the direst straits due to the collapse of the tourist industry there.
In the strategic game-plan, we must not the Libyans fall under the control of the Islamists. How great is ISIL's presence in Libya in real terms? Do they constitute a real threat to the country? We need to make comparisons with situations that bear comparison. ISIL in Libya has nothing in common with ISIL in Iraq or Syria – even though they may hold the town of Sirte, and 240 kilometers of the coastline.
1) ISIL in Libya is estimated to number from 2500 to 5000 people. This means there are ten times more fighters in Iraq and Syria than in Tunisia, even though 2500-5000 fanatics could put up quite a fight.
2) ISIL's enemies in Syria and Iraq are clearly identifiable. The Alawite and Shiite leaderships, the 'apostates' who deal 'unfairly' with Sunni Muslims. The same can't be said of Libya. There is no united government there, and all of those in power are Sunnis. It would not be easy to label them 'apostates'. How could allies be mustered against a non-existent enemy?
3) The local population have no particular love for ISIL, or for foreign fighters of any kind. Even the Libyan radical Islamists are at war with ISIL – which explains why ISIL has flopped in Derna, where they were driven out of the centre of the city.
4) ISIL in Libya receives scanty numbers of recruits from overseas, and has very little access to any worthwhile financial resources – because they have no consolidated hold over petro-chemical facilities. Their financial income comes instead from extorting money from local people, and this of course just promotes even greater hatred. The aid they get from Syria and Iraq is negligible.
5) The main goal of ISIL's High Command might well be to spread jihad throughout the whole of Africa, with the aid of Libya, and Boko Haram in Nigeria – but right now they haven't the money to achieve this. Whatever they may have intended, their relative military weakness at the moment leads them into the easiest and cheapest kind of warfare – terrorism. This explains their attacks in Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, and other adjacent countries. Their aim is to spread chaos and promote clashes among the local populations – even possibly destabilizing the government, as for example in Tunisia.
6) Al-Qaeda has long since taken root in Libya – yet for strategic reasons doesn't fight there under its own banner, and instead fights under the flag of other groupings such as Ansar ash-Sharia. Al-Qaeda is hoping to broaden its influence, and prevent the spread of ISIL. Of course, no-one would say that this is good – but at least these two radical organizations are busy trying to outdo each other. But let's hope they see no reason to ally their causes.
All this means that the international community is trying to prevent the Syrian wasp's-nest from spilling across the international borders, by closing the frontier. It is also trying to unite two governments, but while these attempts continue under the auspices of the UN there will be little progress – because the interests of the two different sides are too strongly in conflict. Overall, the international community can only look on with anxiety at the way ISIL is spreading, and conduct pinpointed operations that might slow that process down.