The British press brings news that SAS fighters have been operating in Libya for several months, alongside Jordanian forces.

This coincides with a growing drumbeat for war in the country, where the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has found a new territorial foothold in the oil-rich Sirte region. The United States is currently weighing up a bombing campaign to put the '"unity"' government back in power.

How did ISIL find a new home in Libya? The explanation casts doubt on any idea that simple military power will solve the problem.

Five years on no change

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Recall that, five years ago, when the US bombed Libya, the operation was glorified as a success. The war could be a "model for other efforts". Libyans proclaimed, "Thank you, America!" Sceptics of the war "were proved badly wrong".

Hillary Clinton was jubilant: "We came, we saw, he died," she said of Muammar Gaddafi. After the disgrace of Iraq, The US' moral standing seemed to have been restored.

Five years on, as the country is beset by civil war, the reporting is surprisingly muted on the intervention or its sequels. For example, the Telegraph makes no mention of the intervention and has only a cursory reference to the civil war in its report on the ISIL capture of Sirte.

The New York Times at least acknowledges the intervention, but draws no direct connection between it and the subsequent meltdown. The Guardian acknowledges the intervention, but only to suggest that a new bombing campaign may turn the tide against ISIL, as it changed the tide against Gaddafi. It is as if ISIL came from nowhere.

In fact, ISIL is benefiting from a political dynamic created by the US intervention. In 2011, amid a revolution against the dictator Gaddafi, the Libyan opposition achieved a unified leadership only very briefly and tentatively.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), an alliance of businessmen, lawyers, professionals and ex-regime elements with a broadly pro-US disposition, gained temporary dominance through its ability to form an alliance with NATO.

Whether it is in Iraq, Syria or Libya, the jihadists have benefited from state breakdown, usually where secular dictatorships have lost ground, but a new regime cannot consolidate itself. International and regional military intervention has a record of exacerbating these dynamics.


This alliance piloted them to power, as NATO bombs finally helped to overcome Gaddafi's resistance in the Battle of Sirte. Otherwise, the opposition was extremely fragmented, with a total of 1,700 militias operating.

If the NTC had been as "popular at home" as The Economist claimed it was last year, the new regime it created - with control of the oil resources, a national army and a popularly elected congress - should have been stable and legitimate.

Decomposing country

Yet, almost as soon as the war was finished, Libya began to decompose. The militias were not federated into an effective authority, and instead operated their own territorial control.

The BBC, in an Orientalist twist, blames this on the opposition having "little understanding of democracy."

But the groups that NATO helped to power were not even representative of the whole opposition, let alone those who had not been convinced to turn against Gaddafi, and they resented the outcome of the vote which empowered the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists who dominated the elected chamber thus came into conflict with the secular forces supported by the US.

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This division was entrenched following a coup launched by the ambitious General Khalifa Haftar in 2014. Haftar was a former CIA asset, and has since become a proxy of the Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who backed his coup. He aspires to be the Libyan equivalent of the Egyptian dictator.

In the ensuing descent into civil war, the supposed "unity" government, backed by the UN but ratified by only 18 percent of Libyan voters, was unable to hold the capital and was instead forced to flee to Tobruk.

Haftar has, however, mounted a bloody anti-Islamist campaign as an extension of Sisi's repressive campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And as the campaign has floundered, Sisi has called for a bombing campaign in Libya, in the hope that it will finally destroy the Libyan wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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This is the context in which 1,500 ISIL fighters, in coalition with a local militia known as Ansar al-Sharia, were able to take Sirte. The jihadists have gained support through audacious and brutal attacks on Haftar's troops, whose repressive actions make them despised.

They thrive in battle with secular authoritarians such as Bashar al-Assad, Nouri Maliki and now Haftar. Such fights dramatise their notion of an "oppressive Tawaghit", delivering them recruits and allies.

Real beneficiaries

If the US does decide to bomb Libya again, it will be doing so effectively in alliance with Egyptian foreign policy, once again backing an unrepresentative minority in Libya.

This time, however, it will be difficult to pretend that they are "popular". Worse still, it will combine all the dynamics upon which ISIL thrives.

Whether it is in Iraq, Syria or Libya, the jihadists have benefited from state breakdown, usually where secular dictatorships have lost ground, but a new regime cannot consolidate itself. International and regional military intervention has a record of exacerbating these dynamics.

And if the main line of struggle in Libya, which was once between dictatorship and democracy, becomes one between Islamists and secular authoritarians, the beneficiaries will be the most reactionary elements on both sides.

Richard Seymour is an author and broadcaster based in London. He has written for The Guardian, the London Review of Books and many other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera