US Faces Difficult Choices in Libya Retaliation
By Joshua Philipp On October 25, 2012 @ 9:08 pm In National News | No Comments
Libya is a country that is unexpectedly moving toward stability and nonviolence. The July elections saw the democratic National Forces Alliance party win the majority of seats, and following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy, locals are now rallying even harder against Islamic extremists and calling for a unified police and military to replace its fragmented militias.
Libya is also in a fragile state, and because of this, the United States is in a difficult place in terms of seeking justice for the attack on the U.S. Embassy. The FBI is on the ground seeking out those responsible, and special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles, often called drones, are on call.
With anti-American protests springing up throughout the Muslim world over a cheap online film that insulted their religion, any action must be taken carefully.
If the Obama administration fails to act, it could send a message to extremist groups that they can get away with copycat attacks. Meanwhile, targeted strikes against those who carried out the attack are risky, since a misplaced strike would likely be used as propaganda by extremists and add fuel to the flame.
According to Max Abrahms, terrorism expert and fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., regarding risks of targeted attacks, it “simply depends on how much discretion the military uses before the military uses them.”
Abrahms pointed to the use of drones in Palestine by the Israeli Defense Forces as an example, noting that they “sometimes don’t do sufficient work to ensure they don’t harm civilians,” which causes even more people to side with extremist groups.
“The more militants you create, the stronger the movement,” Abrahms said. “When we use drone strikes, we have to be extremely careful not to target the civilian population.”
The wildcard is the sudden and unexpected uprising in Libya against the Islamic extremists that are believed to be responsible for the attack on the U.S. Embassy—and whether U.S. retaliation would shift a situation that appears to be moving in a positive direction.
Implosion is the one method considered to be effective in destroying terrorist groups—situations like what is now unfolding in Libya.
According to Abrahms, implosion is when “the organization does something—commits an attack that is unpopular—and the group basically loses its popular support.”
Just 10 days after the attack on the U.S. Embassy, hundreds of Libyans marched to the Benghazi base of Islamic militant group Ansar al-Sharia, which they blame for the attack, and ran them out of town.
Tens of thousands of Libyans took to the streets to apologize to the United States for the actions of the group.
In contrast, the method the United States appears to be poised to use is what is referred to as leadership decapitation—killing off the leaders of the organization.
Libyans claim that the person responsible for the attack was Ahmed Abu Khattala, a commander within Ansar al-Sharia. The group is led by Sheikh Muhammad al-Zahawi.
Terrorist organizations fall into two categories of leadership—vertical with clear and influential leaders, and horizontal with weak leadership. According to Abrahms, there is mixed research on whether killing extremist leaders is an effective strategy.
“My own research suggests that decapitation strikes do not fundamentally weaken militant groups,” he said, yet he is quick to mention that other researchers have shown evidence that the opposite is true.
With al-Qaeda, for example, by the time its leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed, frequent strikes at its leadership had already whittled it down from having a vertical structure to a horizontal one.
Today, al-Qaeda is still present, but its ability to launch attacks abroad often rests on homegrown terrorists—random, individual actors, rather than official members of the organization.
Eliminating a vertical organization requires killing its leaders and their replacements all the way down, “to the point where its most competent members are dead,” said Abrahms.
But eliminating horizontal organizations through this method is difficult, since they have a decentralized structure and a weak leadership.
The risk is that targeted attacks against Ansar al-Sharia could merely change the way it operates, rather than eliminate it, and it could end up in a similar state as al-Qaeda, which Abrahms notes, “there is nobody we could take out at this point who would weaken al-Qaeda.”
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