Migrants smuggled from Libya wait to disembark from an Iceland Coast Guard vessel in southern Italy in May. (Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

A dangerous mission in Libya requires a firm approach

THE PENTAGON says it thinks a U.S. airstrike in Libya on Sunday may have killed one of the most dangerous terrorists in Africa, a man believed to have led a 2013 attack on an Algerian gas field that killed 38 civilians, including three Americans. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has confirmed that its leader in Yemen was killed by a U.S. drone strike last week. It’s good those two militants have been taken off the battlefield, but their elimination will not remedy the growing crises in Libya and Yemen. In that respect, the operations are another example of the limited benefits of President Obama’s narrow approach to counterterrorism.

For years, Mr. Obama has authorized drone strikes and raids against individuals designated as threats to the United States in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, while making only attenuated efforts to support the construction of stable governments in those countries. The result is that all three nations continue to produce a steady stream of recruits for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, while Yemen and Libya have grown increasingly violent and chaotic.

The threat from Libya is particularly worrisome. The country is divided between two competing armies and governments, one secular and one Islamist, each with its own foreign sponsors. Their destructive rivalry has drastically reduced the oil exports on which Libya’s 7 million people depend, while opening the space for jihadists. The faction headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, presumed killed in the airstrike, was affiliated with al-Qaeda, but it has caused less concern recently than an Islamic State affiliate that has gained control of one of Libya’s coastal towns, Sirte, and has been advancing toward the major port of Misrata.

Amid the chaos, refugees and economic migrants from across northern Africa are converging on the Libyan coast, where smugglers offer access by boat to Europe. European Union officials say half a million people may try to cross the Mediterranean this summer, and thousands have already died en route.

While E.U. leaders bicker over how to slow the influx or manage those who survive the journey, it’s obvious that only a political solution for Libya will stem the humanitarian crisis and the growing terrorist threat. But the West’s efforts to promote one have been underpowered. The Obama administration and its allies have been depending on a U.N. mediator, Bernardino León, to broker a settlement between the competing governments. After months of negotiations, he announced a plan last week, only to see it spurned by the Western-recognized secular government in Tobruk.

Mr. León is still trying, but a U.N. envoy will never have the same leverage as the United States or NATO, which helped to create the Libyan mess by abruptly withdrawing after its 2011 air campaign led to the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The Obama administration ought to be putting intense pressure on the Tobruk government and its principal sponsor, Egypt. Libyans should be threatened with the impoundment of their oil revenues and sanctions against their leaders if they do not accept the U.N. deal; meanwhile, Western leaders should be thinking about how to help Libyan forces move against the Islamic State and other jihadists. Killing a notorious terrorist helps that cause, but not much.

THE PENTAGON says it thinks a U.S. airstrike in Libya on Sunday may have killed one of the most dangerous terrorists in Africa, a man believed to have led a 2013 attack on an Algerian gas field that killed 38 civilians, including three Americans. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has confirmed that its leader in Yemen was killed by a U.S. drone strike last week. It’s good those two militants have been taken off the battlefield, but their elimination will not remedy the growing crises in Libya and Yemen. In that respect, the operations are another example of the limited benefits of President Obama’s narrow approach to counterterrorism.

For years, Mr. Obama has authorized drone strikes and raids against individuals designated as threats to the United States in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, while making only attenuated efforts to support the construction of stable governments in those countries. The result is that all three nations continue to produce a steady stream of recruits for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, while Yemen and Libya have grown increasingly violent and chaotic.

The threat from Libya is particularly worrisome. The country is divided between two competing armies and governments, one secular and one Islamist, each with its own foreign sponsors. Their destructive rivalry has drastically reduced the oil exports on which Libya’s 7 million people depend, while opening the space for jihadists. The faction headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, presumed killed in the airstrike, was affiliated with al-Qaeda, but it has caused less concern recently than an Islamic State affiliate that has gained control of one of Libya’s coastal towns, Sirte, and has been advancing toward the major port of Misrata.

Amid the chaos, refugees and economic migrants from across northern Africa are converging on the Libyan coast, where smugglers offer access by boat to Europe. European Union officials say half a million people may try to cross the Mediterranean this summer, and thousands have already died en route.

While E.U. leaders bicker over how to slow the influx or manage those who survive the journey, it’s obvious that only a political solution for Libya will stem the humanitarian crisis and the growing terrorist threat. But the West’s efforts to promote one have been underpowered. The Obama administration and its allies have been depending on a U.N. mediator, Bernardino León, to broker a settlement between the competing governments. After months of negotiations, he announced a plan last week, only to see it spurned by the Western-recognized secular government in Tobruk.

Mr. León is still trying, but a U.N. envoy will never have the same leverage as the United States or NATO, which helped to create the Libyan mess by abruptly withdrawing after its 2011 air campaign led to the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The Obama administration ought to be putting intense pressure on the Tobruk government and its principal sponsor, Egypt. Libyans should be threatened with the impoundment of their oil revenues and sanctions against their leaders if they do not accept the U.N. deal; meanwhile, Western leaders should be thinking about how to help Libyan forces move against the Islamic State and other jihadists. Killing a notorious terrorist helps that cause, but not much.