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A sign of hope for Libya arrived in the Moroccan town of Skhirat last week when rival political leaders came together to sign a UN-brokered agreement to form a national unity government. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonconveyed congratulations and caution, describing the agreement as “the beginning of a difficult journey.” But for a country abundant with jihadist enclaves, rival governments and 2.4 million people requiring immediate humanitarian assistance, it was the best piece of news in recent memory.
In the years since the NATO-backed ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya devolved into anarchy and then civil war. As the United States and its NATO allies pulled back their presence and eschewed serious involvement in political stabilization efforts, hundreds of private militias emerged to carve out territory for themselves, at times occupying some of the country’s major ports and sources of oil.
By the time the negotiations in Skhirat had begun in earnest, the many factions, fighters and politicians had congealed into two rival Libyan governments: the House of Representatives in eastern Libya, which the international community recognizes; and the General National Congress, in western Libya, which is dominated by Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Representatives of both governments participated in the UN-brokered negotiations, and hopes are high that under the terms of the agreement, they will indeed unite into a single government.
But one faction with no seat at the table was the so-called Islamic State. Fifteen hundred miles from its heartland in Syria and Iraq, the expansionist caliphate has established a satellite ‘province’ on Libyan coastal territory, roughly 125 square miles and only 100 miles across the Mediterranean from European shores. Though dwarfed by the ISIS ‘mother ship’ to the east, the Libyan enclave is strategically vital to the group, a success story for it to propagate and a major threat to Europe. Like the myriad militias that established themselves in Libya during and after the war, ISIS has joined in the plundering of vast silos of weapons Qaddafi left behind throughout the country. It has won followers inside Libya and recruited thousands from the broader Maghreb, from Mali and Nigeria, and probably from Europe. It poses a special threat to Europe by virtue of its geographic proximity as well as the ease of transit across Libya’s porous borders and onto the Mediterranean. This is the ISIS branch that beheaded twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier this year, incurring an Egyptian aerial assault. At the time, the assault appeared to be a one-shot deal.
But with the new UN agreement comes the possibility of a new turn against ISIS as well. It was no accident that the negotiations took place in…