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Originally published in Commentary Magazine.
Warning of potential terrorist attacks throughout that continent, the State Department has issued a travel alert for Europe. Such moves are a sobering indication of how Europe’s authorities have allowed this threat to get completely out of hand. In both Brussels and Paris, we have witnessed a network of Islamic State militants conceal themselves in the heart of Europe, only to unleash a series of well-organized terror attacks. Islamist fighters trained in Syria posed as refugees, infiltrated Europe, and then moved freely across the borderless continent that the European Union has bestowed upon its citizens.
We also know that ISIS is increasing the degree of priority that it gives to carrying out attacks in the West. As senior ISIS spokesman Mohammad al-Adnani insinuated in a lengthy diatribe released on May 21st, attacks on soft targets in Europe are more prized by ISIS than the ones the group is able to carry out in the Islamic world. Urging attacks on Westerners, the ISIS statement explained; “targeting those who are called ‘civilians’ is more beloved to us and more effective, as it is more harmful, painful, and a greater deterrent to them.”
We have no way of knowing how many ISIS militants have already slipped into Europe, nor how many so-called homegrown extremists might be plotting Islamic State-inspired attacks. So far, much of the concern in Europe has focused on ISIS members traveling from Syria and hiding among migrants moving up through Greece and the Balkans. Yet Europeans shouldn’t forget that Islamic State has a stronghold much closer to home. Indeed, just 300 miles off the European coast, in Libya, the Jihadist group controls an enclave around the coastal city of Sirte.
Europe’s leaders are hoping that a deal recently implemented with Turkey will pretty much turn off the tap on illegal migration coming through the Eastern Mediterranean. Now, attention is turning to the migrant route that has been operating from lawless Libya toward Malta and Sicily. The EU’s naval efforts in the Central Mediterranean — Operation Sophia — have so far fundamentally failed to combat this challenge and appear to have been primarily concerned with attempting to rescue migrants left to drown by traffickers. The British have said they will dispatch a naval vessel into Libyan waters to patrol the coast in an effort to prevent the smuggling of both people and weapons. Still, this has to count as the absolute minimum that Europe could be doing to deal with a problem that is, after all, in its own backyard.
Having helped to remove Gaddafi, the European countries involved, like the Obama administration, neglected to take responsibility for what happened next. We have seen this story repeated across the Arab world. Removing tyrannical regimes does not itself necessarily expand freedom. Failed states, weak government, and anarchy are also the enemy of liberty. Grandiose talk from Obama and Kerry about “the right side of history,” or about the arc of the “moral universe” bending in certain directions turned out to be nonsense. It’s a progressive fantasy to imagine that there is an inevitability about human history and that it must necessarily be working its way toward liberalism. That all we need to do is topple despots and the people in those societies will organically reorganize themselves into democracies.
Post-Gaddafi, Libya is engulfed by a civil war involving three governments and multiple militias. If things are left as they are currently, the end result could be a Libya dominated by Islamist rule, perhaps ISIS. Europe has a strong interest in acting to see that that doesn’t happen. It need only look to Israel, which has learnt the hard way that leaving ungoverned spaces on your doorstep often results in the vacuum being filled by people who will make use of that territory to advance their own efforts to destroy you. Europe should ask itself if it wants its own equivalent of southern Lebanon just across the Mediterranean.
If smugglers can transport thousands of African migrants to European shores, then why not a single fishing boat with a few well-armed ISIS fighters? Last year we saw the carnage that just one Islamic State-affiliated militant was able to unleash when he opened fire on Western tourists on a beach in Tunisia. If European holiday-makers learn not to travel to the Jihadists, then perhaps the Jihadists will start making the short boat trip to Europe’s beaches instead.
Of course, beyond low-level naval surveillance, there is no political will to take any kind of meaningful intervention in Libya. Right now mission creep is the most we can hope for. Islamic State appears to be on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, but if so, the group may decide to focus greater effort on its base of operations in Libya. That would pose a far more significant headache for Europe. Angela Merkel and other European leaders may have bribed the Turkish government into cooperating with efforts to stop migration through Greece. But who in Libya is there for Europeans to make such a deal with? Not the ISIS authorities in Sirte, that’s for sure.