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Experts Tell Lawmakers of Libya’s Instability

WASHINGTON (CN) - If not strengthened, Libya's nascent and fragile unity government could collapse under the weight of militia rivalries and the struggle against terror groups, experts warned members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

High hopes for Libya's future after Moammar Gadhafi's death in 2011 have faded into the power vacuum that emerged in the dictator's absence and the country's descent into chaos.

The growth of militias in the country skyrocketed after Gadhafi's death, from several hundred to 1,600, said Federica Saini Fasanotti with the Brookings Institution.

According to Fasanotti, there are 20 million weapons circulating in the country of 6 million people.

Criminal elements in Libya are increasingly well organized. State police exhibit powerlessness and armed forces lack coherence, she said.

"The absence of any state structure has turned the country into the incubator of terrorism, ready to act as a trigger for the whole continent," Fasanotti told the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade subcommittee on Tuesday.

In April, President Barack Obama said the worst mistake of his presidency was his failure to plan for the aftermath of Gadhafi's ouster.

One consequence has been the rise of the Islamic State group in the shattered country, and the spread of the group's self-proclaimed caliphate.

Even though Islamic State-held territory in Libya is shrinking, the group remains firmly rooted in the country, the Long War Journal's Thomas Joscelyn told the subcommittee.

"Despite losing its grip on Sirte and the surrounding towns and villages, the Islamic State will retain a presence inside Libya," he said.

At the beginning of August, the U.S. launched 170 "precision airstrikes" at the request of the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli to allow Libyan ground forces to accelerate the offensive against Islamic State fighters in the coastal town.

The group had elevated Sirte to the status of Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq, the self-proclaimed capitals of the Islamic State. Sirte was a key component of its long-term strategy, viewed as a contingency plan in the event of major territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, Joscelyn said.

Its loss of control over the city is significant. But Joscelyn said maintaining control of Sirte once it's cleared will require the U.S. and the militias it backs to staunchly defend it.

"As the Islamic State's men have been cleared block by block from Sirte, they have demonstrated that they continue to maintain a strong operational capacity, launching suicide bombings in neighborhoods they've lost, and killing dozens of their Libyan enemies," Joscelyn said, cautioning that the Islamic State could regroup in the remote and lawless south of the country.

Though on the verge of a major defeat in Libya, Joscelyn said that the group is just one among many terror groups vying for power in the deeply divided country. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has been lurking in the shadows, waiting for the Islamic State group's "top-down authoritarian" strategy for state-building to backfire, he suggested.

"The Islamic State's loss of Sirte will be viewed in jihadist circles as a vindication of al-Qaida's strategy," he said. "Al-Qaida's senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, repeatedly warned that the premature declaration of an Islamic state harms the jihadists' cause."

He added, "Al-Qaida has consistently argued that a jihadist state cannot survive if the U.S. and its allies decide to intervene. This is exactly what happened in Sirte."

Joscelyn called the popular conception that al-Qaida has no territorial ambitions "an erroneous assumption." The Long War Journal, which is dedicated to covering the War on Terror, studies al-Qaida and other extremist propaganda and documents.

While the Islamic State has preached the virtues of establishing a caliphate now and not waiting for al-Qaida, Joscelyn concludes that al-Qaida's state-building strategy is a longer-term vision that requires "strategic patience."

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is applying the strategy it used in Mali to acquire territory in Libya. Though it briefly controlled a significant chunk of Mali in 2012, Joscelyn noted that the group was willing to partner with big tribes and rival rebel movements that did not share its ideology, to win broad popular support and establish deep roots.

The strategy was highlighted in a letter written by Abdulmalek Droukdel, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Droukdel believes an al-Qaida-run state could be easily overrun by Western powers, as happened in Mali in 2013 after French intervention. Rather than ruling by absolute force like the Islamic State, al-Qaida wants to give the appearance of power showering on the political and military stages, implementing its state-building strategy bit by bit.

In fact, Joscelyn says the group likes to maintain such a low-key presence that it often does not want its presence to be detected at all.

For example, Droukdel advocates for implementing Sharia law gradually because local populations are not accustomed to living under al-Qaida's Draconian penal code, Joscelyn said. The organization is also using this strategy in Syria and Yemen, he noted.

Other documents from the terrorist organization suggest it is framing its cause in terms of fighting against foreign aggression, a strategy it is using effectively in Libya. The U.S. needs to do more to expose its network in the country, Joscelyn suggested.

In order to strengthen Libya's interim Government of National Accord formed in December, Fasanotti told the subcommittee Tuesday that U.S. efforts must focus on improving security, restoring the oil-based economy and fostering unity among the various factions, which are resistant to international interventions.

She suggested a weapons buy-back program and investing in new management of gas and oil revenues. She also suggested deconstructing the country into a confederate system composed of three regions, which would empower local governments.

"While a united Libya is preferable, it might not be possible after years of civil war and entrenched hatreds," Fasanotti said.

It is unclear if Libyans would want that.

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