In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 25, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper delivered a grim assessment of the threat posed not only by ISIS’s core in Iraq and Syria, but by its “emerging branches in other countries.” Indeed, ISIS is throwing off malignant spores, and if left unchecked, they will grow and propagate the death, destruction, and despair that define the areas under ISIS control.
As we continue to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we must recognize that the threat is also changing as it is spreading. In North Africa, and particularly Libya, where the danger is most acute, our counter-ISIS strategy must combine the coordinated use of military power, strong diplomacy to end the political infighting, capacity building, and efforts to sow division between local ISIS affiliates and their terrorist sponsors.
It is imperative that the United States, along with our allies, must continue to conduct military operations in Libya to deny ISIS a sanctuary where it can organize and train recruits, derive resources from taxation or oil, establish expeditionary bases or provinces, and threaten the fragile governments of neighboring countries. Last week, the U.S. military conducted a successful airstrike in Libya targeting an ISIS training camp and a senior facilitator, Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian national who is suspected in the March 18, 2015, deadly attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and who facilitated the movement of potential ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters from Tunisia to Libya and beyond.
The removal of Chouchane and the camp will disrupt ISIS’s ability to recruit new members, establish bases in Libya, and plan attacks against us and our interests in the region. But the United States and its allies must go further to deprive ISIS of this alternate safe haven with a more robust tempo of operations, and a broader military campaign to roll back ISIS’s territorial gains.
As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, once ISIS becomes firmly established, the challenge of uprooting it becomes exponentially more difficult. This must not be allowed to happen in Libya, and military operations should go hand in hand with the diplomatic efforts, rather than allowing the former to be deferred until there is success with the latter.
Even as the coalition intensifies its military efforts to check ISIS growth, we must strengthen diplomatic efforts to insist upon a unity government in Libya and bring together the fractious militias. For far too long, the rival political factions in Libya have fiddled while the country burned, and the international community must use stronger coercive means to compel them to form a representative national government.
But diplomatic efforts must not stop there; we also need to do more to support neighboring Tunisia—the one tenuous example of a democratic country emerging from the Arab spring—and to counter ISIS’s overall extremist message in North Africa. While Libya is the most pressing front in the broadening fight against ISIS, without a concerted diplomatic campaign to counter violent extremism in the entire region, we are at risk of a never-ending game of military whack-a-mole.
It is also essential that we build the capacity and professionalism of the defense, intelligence, and police services in Libya, Tunisia, and the countries of the Sahel so that they can better defend themselves against ISIS, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other Islamist extremist groups. The security services in these countries are stretched thin, and often lack the capacity to track foreign fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq.
They must also be imbued with a professional ethos, not one of expediency or vengeance. The United States must not build up a security infrastructure in a country to fight one threat, only to sow the seeds of a future conflict.
Finally, we must tailor our approach to counter local ISIS affiliates, which differ significantly from ISIS’s core, and exploit those differences to sow discord. ISIS expansion makes it vulnerable to overextension and local affiliates have different agendas, even as they swear allegiance to the core. As ISIS continues to lose ground and resources in its so-called caliphate, its allure becomes less compelling and remunerative, and the ISIS offshoots will become increasingly less subservient. We must use our intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to split these groups and other violent militias from their opportunistic alliance with the terrorist flagship.
Whether out of desperation or from strategic vision, ISIS is evolving by enlarging. Accordingly, we must expand our strategy to go after the ISIS affiliates, using all of the tools of military force, strong diplomatic engagement, capacity building, and a strategy that divides—rather than unites—our enemies.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) serves as the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.