Sunday morning, the United States' most senior uniformed officer described the military campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi as "limited." Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said it "isn't about seeing him go."
But by later that night, CNN reported that Qadhafi's compound had been struck by missiles.
After several weeks of bloodshed, and now several days of military intervention, we still don't know what President Obama is trying to accomplish. While Obama's national security adviser stated that operations in Libya have been "very, very successful," the White House apparently doesn't want to keep taking credit for them. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has announced plans to hand over control of the no-fly zone operation to our international military partners.
Admittedly, a big part of the problem is that we still don't know who could replace Qadhafi. The man ruled Libya with an iron fist for more than four decades and never allowed any of the country's institutions to grow. Unlike Egypt, where a powerful military leadership moved in to serve as a caretaker government after president Hosni Mubarak was ousted last month, Libya offers little option for military rule.
Without such institutions, if Qadhafi goes down, members of the Libyan opposition will replace him - and they are a sketchy bunch. True, there are democrats among them, but there are also hardcore Islamists.
David Wood of the Huffington Post recently reported what we've known for weeks: That the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group could exploit the vacuum.
In recent weeks, Libyan jails have released hundreds of LIFG members. In some cases, they escaped in jailbreaks. In others, Qadhafi's forces freed them without explanation.
The U.S. government first designated the LIFG as a terrorist group in 2001, when it named scores of other terrorist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates. The group parallels many other al-Qaeda splinter groups. It has a legitimate local grievance (Qadhafi), but also a dangerous global vision (international jihad). And Osama bin Laden himself has supported the group, knowing that a local franchise in Libya would only help him expand his jihadi network.
The group, first founded in 1995 by Libyan mujahedin in Afghanistan, has carried out numerous attacks against the Tripoli regime, including a 1996 assassination attempt against Qadhafi himself. It also had a role in the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca, and the 2004 attacks in Madrid. In 2007, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that the LIFG had become an official affiliate of al-Qaeda.
In recent years, the Treasury has designated several individuals and entities associated with LIFG. Each time, the accompanying press release from the U.S. Treasury Department (based on declassified information) has helped deepen our understanding of the group.
For example, in October 2008, Treasury designated three individuals based in the United Kingdom. The release indicated that LIFG had raised funds in Europe and transferred them to terror cells in North Africa. One of the designees, Abdulbasit Abdulrahim, had supporters in Saudi Arabia.
Another 2008 designation named Adil Muhammad Mahmud Abd al-Khaliq, whom the UAE had arrested a year earlier for being a member of both al-Qaeda and the LIFG. Operating with a Bahraini passport, Khaliq helped al-Qaeda raise money and expand its operations in Afghanistan. He also met with senior al-Qaeda operatives in Iran.
The United Kingdom struck a blow to the LIFG in 2006, when it designated five financiers, along with three front businesses and a terror-financing charity. The men were providing passports and money to LIFG members around the world. Some of them worked with other al-Qaeda affiliates, like the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM) and the now-defunct Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria. The designated charity had ties to Abu Zubayda, a top al-Qaeda operative now in US custody.
Thus, we know that the LIFG has had a strong base of operations in Europe, and active cells in North Africa. We know that it has Saudi support. Moreover, we know that the LIFG has ties to other dangerous terrorist groups in the al-Qaeda network, as well as some of its top operatives.
How many LIFG members have joined Libya's opposition? How many members of the rebel fighting force belong to the network that Treasury has tried to dismantle over the years?
The answers to these questions are not apparent. This may, in part, explain President Obama's indecision. It may also explain his reluctance to lead the international effort against Qadhafi.
Washington must identify strong secular leaders among the Libyan opposition who could ensure that the LIFG did not hijack the post-Qadhafi political scene. Without boots on the ground, this is exceedingly difficult. The U.S. has been meeting with opposition leaders around the world. However, until we have a better sense of who is actually in charge, nagging questions surrounding succession will remain.