Lord Ashdown may have a good point when he accuses the west of suffering from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” allowing Bosnia to “slide back towards the status of a failed state” while attention is so focused on Libya, but I wonder if there is not another comparison that can be made between the two: that of jihadi battlefields within easy reach of Europe.
It remains unclear how many jihadists linked to al-Qaeda are fighting alongside the rebels in Libya. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis spoke of “flickers” of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah being present in the country and rebel commanders have been quoted saying how some of the men they initially recruited to go and fight in Iraq have returned to fight Gadaffi’s forces. There have also beenreports of former Guantanamo detainees showing up in leadership roles, and one report claimed that the jihadist units that were making it to the front were amongst the most effective fighters. On the more alarmist end of the scale, leader of nearby Chad has claimed that al-Qaeda linked elements have plundered the Colonel’s weapons supplies and run away with surface-to-air missiles.
Amidst this all, there have been stories of British Libyans deciding to return home to fight to overthrow the leader. According to James Brandon and Noman Benotman’s authoritative account, “some” former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have returned to fight against Gadaffi, with at least one being killed and another captured. In the meantime, “Sam’s” story in the Telegraph seems to highlight that the fighting bug is catching amongst the younger generation. Othershave told of how they are returning to take on roles as doctors of aid workers.
All of which is very understandable. Rather than watch their nation implode on their television screens, these expatriate Libyans are going back home to do something. And they are doing this all with the support of NATO bombing campaign from the air and western intelligence agents on the ground directing fire.
But what happens when the NATO campaign eventually stops and what if Gadaffi does not fall. What if the nation descends, like Bosnia did, into a protracted and grim civil war into which jihadist elements were able to move in and offer a live fire training ground for aspirant warriors from around the world? Last time this happened in Bosnia, an unknown number of young Europeans went to fight. As the story of Sayyad al Falastini shows, the battlefield was a coach ride away for young men in London, and Libya is not really that much farther away (not sure if it is a coach ride, but it is certainly easier than getting to Somalia or Waziristan).
This may all be an exaggerated concern. One friend pointed out that of greater concern was the fact that jails in a number of north African countries had emptied, turning god knows who on the street. While intelligence headquarters had all been pillaged, destroying a wealth of knowledge on Islamists from across the region. But as the situation in Libya continues to drift into something less than a conclusive solution with Colonel Gadaffi continuing to hold on, some consideration should be given for it as a potential risk as a jihadi battlefield next door. Given the fact that until recently the West was quite firmly on the wrong side of history in Libya, and we are still uncertain as to what the plan is to support the rebels while allied bombers are accidentally killing some of them, this is by no means necessarily a revolution which will completely go the West’s way. Looking back at footage or coverage of Islamists rallying troops to go to Bosnia, it is easy to see that even in the wake of action by the West they remained angry and the end result was a group of cells some of which ended up targeting the their home nations. Extremists in the UK are already talking about how this is just another western war in a Muslim land.
There are many good reasons for the fighting in Libya to be brought to some positive resolution quickly, not allowing a war with a potentially jihadist flavor to fester on Europe’s doorstep is clearly amongst them. Unfortunately, at the moment the end strategy seems uncertain leading to a potentially dangerous period of intractable conflict that could turn into a Bosnian-style jihadist battlefield. Lets hope some resolution can be effectively brought and enforced before such a situation arises.