Libya has become a “magnet” for terrorists since the U.S.-led ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, a Pentagon official said in testimony Wednesday.
“Clearly Libya has become a magnet…for extremists, terrorists to go there,” said Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs. “It’s a vacant lot in many places in Libya.”
Lawmakers said the White House has taken its eye off the ball in the country.
“Today, terrorists are using Libya as a training ground,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Libya is rapidly slipping into chaos,” Royce said, adding that the U.S.’s “lack of interest in leading” Libya’s transition to democracy has allowed coalition partners to “head home knowing the job was not done.”
“As disappointments go, Libya ranks pretty high on the list,” added Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).
Terrorists saw their biggest success in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, when they stormed a U.S. compound and a CIA annex and killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The Pentagon has sought to bolster security in Libya by training between 5,000 and 8,000 general purpose forces, but that work by U.S. Africa Command has yet to begin.
Progress has been slowed by the inability to identify Libyans who would be trained, as well as not having sufficient security in place for the trainers, said Chollet.
“We can't have the personnel on the ground in Tripoli to execute this program,” said Chollet, who described it as a “chicken and egg” problem.
In addition, the eight-year effort would cost $600 million, and Libya has not yet begun to pay for the training, Chollet said.
“We are not where we want to be,” he said.
Chollet said European partners have begun to pay out of their own pocket to train Libyan forces. Countries such as Italy are worried about a massive influx of migrants.
“The Italians are seeing a tremendous migration flow coming out of Libya,” Chollet said. “[They] are worried that among those migrants will be extremists."
There are also concerns that some of Gadhafi’s arms stockpiles, which included shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, might have been taken to Syria and other countries, said Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs.
Patterson said transitioning Libya to a democratic government would require “intensive engagement” by the U.S. and allies for many years.
“The stakes for the United states and the Libya people are substantial,” she said. “We will need to broaden our support to Libya [and] expand our in-country diplomatic activities,” she said.
“Libya is a morality tale about how limited our reach can be,” Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) said.