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REVEALED: Britain and Jordan’s secret war in Libya

Middle East Eye confirms that British and Jordanian special forces are secretly battling Islamic State fighters in Libya
A picture released by Jordan's Royal Palace on March 2, 2016 shows Jordan's King Abdullah II (C) (AFP)

Britain has launched covert military operations in Libya against Islamic State (IS) militants with the support of Jordan, Middle East Eye can reveal.

Soldiers from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) regiment have been sent to tackle an emerging IS threat in Libya as part of a global war against the group, and Britain has recruited Jordanian special forces to provide local intelligence, according to Jordanian King Abdullah II Ibn Hussein.

It is the first official confirmation that British troops are operating inside Libya against IS.

MEE has obtained a detailed account of a meeting Abdullah held with US congressional leaders in January, when he revealed the previously unreported deployment of British and Jordanian special forces in Libya.

According to the account, sent on the condition of anonymity by a source close to the meeting, Abdullah said that he expected covert military operations in Libya to increase after the meeting, which was held in the week of 11 January. He told his American audience that Jordanian special forces would be embedded with their British counterparts.

“His Majesty [King Abdullah] said he expects a spike in a couple of weeks and Jordanians will be imbedded [sic] with British SAS, as Jordanian slang is similar to Libyan slang,” the account said.

He did not reveal the size or scope of the operations in Libya, where IS has seized control of territory amid a political vacuum that has emerged in the chaos since former leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and later killed in a NATO-backed 2011 uprising.

Abdullah met the congressional leaders during a visit to the United States in which he held a slew of high-level discussions with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, but not with President Barack Obama, who was forced to say he didn't snub the king and hadn't met him because of "scheduling conflicts".

The king revealed the secret special forces operations in Libya when speaking to a large gathering of senior American politicians including John McCain and Bob Corker, who each attended with their respective armed services and foreign relations committees.

'Third world war'

In the meeting, Abdullah, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and Royal Court political director Manar Dabbas spoke at length about how the fight against IS was the beginning of a "third world war" stretching from Indonesia to California. 

“The problem is bigger than ISIL, this is a third world war, this is Christians, Jews working with Muslims against Khawarej, outlaws,” the king said, using an alternative acronym for IS, and referring to an early schismatic Islamic sect that was known for killing Muslims they declared not part of Islam.

Responding to Abdullah’s statement that his country was in a battle against the outlaws of Islam, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said “they don’t comprehend that view here in Washington”.

Abdullah urged the US and Russia to bury the hatchet and work together to beat IS, the document said. 

“The problem is many countries are still living the cold war, but they have to get beyond that and focus on the third world war,” he said.

This prompted Senator John McCain to say American and Russian priorities were different – particularly on their approach to the Syrian civil war. He argued the Russians "don’t want to see a democratic Syria".

None of the Congress members responded to requests for comment before publication.

Royal Court political director Dabbas referred MEE to the Jordanian Royal Court's media adviser when asked for comment, adding: "The discussions we had in Washington were off the record."

Jordan's King Abdullah (L) speaks with US Senator John McCain (AFP)

Abdullah lamented a lack of clear strategy from the Americans to tackle IS, saying their objectives were “not clear”. He called for Washington to give him a better understanding of their plans to take on the group in 2016.

The king said he had turned to the British for support due to the absence of a clear US plan, and added that the war against IS required “counter-insurgency warfare” and not “traditional open warfare”.

Abdullah said he thought it most efficient to connect civil servants from allied countries and get them to work together on global military operations, as politicians can be more cautious about the covert deployment of high-value specialised army battalions.

The king has rich military experience and close connections to the British armed forces. 

He trained as a special forces officer at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1980, before briefly serving as a British army officer.

Since becoming king in 1999, Abdullah has sought to develop Jordan’s special forces as a respected elite force and he has positioned Amman as a key regional site for the defence industry through hosting an annual military exhibition called SOFEX, which allows arms companies to show off their latest high-tech equipment.

“If there is a special forces capital of the Middle East, it is Jordan,” said Sean Yom, an assistant professor of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“It's not quantity. It's not strategic depth. It’s the quality of Jordanian training, the hardiness of the Jordanian soldier and their reliability for Jordanian policy.

"Abdullah has said time and again that these three factors are what sets the Jordanian military establishment apart from every other Arab military which is why he can be the most reliable partner for the West."

Demystifying Britain's role in Libya

Abdullah’s revelation that British and Jordanian troops are covertly fighting IS in Libya is the first official confirmation that Britain is playing a direct combat role in the troubled North African country, and it comes after weeks of intensifying pressure on British Prime Minister David Cameron to clarify his country’s rumoured military role in Libya.

On 17 March, Britain’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to Cameron asking for a statement on reports that Britain was planning to send 1,000 troops to Libya as part of a 6,000-strong international force.

Cameron had earlier told the House of Commons that “we would of course come to this house and discuss” any planned deployment.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who chairs the foreign affairs panel, told MEE that he wasn’t surprised the SAS were operating in Libya.

“It was implied in Tobias Ellwood’s statement to us about RAF [Royal Air Force)] flights going there and not being prepared to say anything more about it,” he said via telephone, referring to Middle East minister Ellwood's February statement that British jets were flying reconnaissance flights over Libya.

“Obviously there are reports of special forces activity and our enemies in the form of IS are operating in Libya. I think military action against Daesh [IS] is a good thing."

A spokesperson for Britain's Ministry of Defence would not clarify the special forces' role in Libya and told Middle East Eye: "We do not comment on special forces operations."

Blunt said that the separation between special forces and the rest of the army is "slightly artificial," and he called for a more complete anti-IS strategy to be formulated with the consultation of MPs.

“I think a more coherent military strategy would be well-advised and that would require an engagement of parliament,” he said.

US and British soldiers chat at the Basmaya base, southeast of Baghdad, on 27 January, 2016 (AFP)

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former top British military official told MEE that it was normal for special forces, which are not considered conventional forces, to be deployed without MPs being given the opportunity to debate the issue in parliament.

He said that he “assumed we [the British SAS] are there in a support and training role rather than a frontline role – but that’s been a bit muddy too," adding that while special forces are a “very useful tool” they would not “make a material difference” in the fight against IS.

“Special forces will never substitute for a conventional force that occupies and holds ground,” he said.

“A properly orchestrated international force would start to have an effect in terms of building up the proxy [Libyan] force that you’re actually going to use.”

Australian counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, who advised US general David Petraeus and helped design the 2007 surge in Iraq, told MEE that special forces can have two positive effects on wider military efforts.

“The first is if special forces are on the ground they can provide close targeting intelligence for air strikes,” he said. “The second is that they can provide a stiffening effect on the local forces they work with, by giving them intelligence and tactical advice.”

Kilcullen pointed to the US-led war in Afghanistan, when 100 CIA officers and 300 US special forces soldiers built up 50,000 Afghan fighters to seize control of the country from the Taliban.

However, he said having such highly trained men on the ground could also have present problems of escalation.

“It puts Westerners in harm’s way. And this makes it harder for their governments to walk away,” he said.

“If someone is kidnapped or killed, this can become a tripwire to a wider unplanned engagement – it leads to raids to rescue a kidnapped soldier with the possibility of further operations.”

Kilcullen said that if there are British special forces in Libya, it was highly likely there would also be a “quick reaction force with search and rescue troops – along with drones with full strike capacity – in the event of special forces being killed or kidnapped.

The former British army official said that special forces could be used to kill senior IS leaders in Libya as part of a plan to stop the group increasing its presence in a North African country that acts as a key route for refugees heading for Europe.

Who will benefit in Libya?

However, Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told MEE that such missions did not guarantee wider success.

“Even if you kill the IS leadership, it’s not clear who will control the ‘liberated’ territory afterwards,” he said.

“This is very likely to be the case in Sirte, with competing forces now claiming to have a plan to defeat IS there but no plan to govern it in a unitary way,” he added, referring to the main Libyan town under IS control.

Libya’s civil war is a complex web of militias and parliaments vying for control of a fractured country that possesses Africa’s largest oil reserves.

The House of Representatives (HoR) is based in the east of the country, and it is backed militarily by the Libyan National Army, which is lead by Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi general who became a rebel leader in 2011.

They have been fighting for control of the country against the Misratan-led alliance of Libya Dawn - a hodgepodge of militias that control the capital Tripoli and protect the General National Congress (GNC), a parliament which the HoR officially replaced after elections in June 2014.

A Member of a brigade loyal to Libya Dawn takes part in a military parade following battles against the Islamic State group (AFP)

IS has seized on this political vacuum to take over territory, including the central town of Sirte, where Gaddafi was born.

UN-brokered talks have attempted to form a unity government to end the fighting and strike a strong front to stop IS. In 2015, a new administration, the Government of National Accord, was agreed and has since been established but not endorsed officially by Libya’s internationally recognised parliament, the HoR.

Toaldo said the GNA's rumoured plan to set up in Tripoli could mark the beginning of a new struggle.

“The GNA could try to install in Tripoli,” he said. “But that won't mean a unity government but rather the beginning of a new phase in the competition between the existing four governments: Serraj [GNA]; Ghwell [GNC]; Thinni-Haftar [HoR]; and Daesh [IS].”

The fallout from NATO's 2011 intervention

The former British military official told MEE that Libya’s troubles stretch back to Gaddafi's overthrow, coupled with a lack of post-intervention planning.

"There was very little discussion what would happen next at that time," he said, adding that the post-conflict plan which "was done on the back of a fag packet".

"As [retired US general] Colin Powell said: ‘When you break a country you own that country until you put it together again.’

"We didn’t do that. There’s this great cry in the British military: ‘Clout, don’t dribble.’ And we’ve consistently dribbled and hoped to get away with it. And therefore the result is what we see in Libya today.”

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, US President Barack Obama appeared to criticise British Prime Minister Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for losing interest in Libya after leading the bombing campaign that resulted in the fall of Gaddafi.

However, British and French interest has certainly increased in Libya in recent months, particularly as IS has risen and Europe’s refugee crisis has deepened, but Cameron has said that his focus is not on military action but instead on seeing the formation of an effective Libyan unity government.

The ECFR's Toaldo said King Abdullah's comments in Washington would raise questions over how sending SAS into Libya fits in with the British goal of a unified Libya.

“The surprise is not the Jordanian-British cooperation but the fact that there is now hard evidence of UK involvement on the ground in Libya. It is worth asking how the UK government thinks these operations interact with efforts to strike a unity deal.”

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