The media’s having a bit of a freakout right now over comments made by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that his military would “one day move the battle to Europe.” These fears are overblown. Gaddafi is of course willing to use terrorism–he’s done it time and time again when his regime wasn’t facing an existential threat. However, that was a risk that states took when they launched the intervention in Libya back in mid-March, and it’s telling that there have apparently been no acts of Libyan terror since then. Gaddafi’s being squeezed very hard, so if he’d had the ability to pull off an overseas terrorist attack, we’d probably have seen it by now.
So why, exactly, is it unlikely that Gaddafi’s agents will be able to pull off a terrorist attack? As I’ve written before, terrorism is a human capital-intensive activity. You need people trained in a variety of things–not just “blowing things up”–to launch an effective attack. Libya certainly has people with the right skill sets, but it’s going to have a great deal of difficulty getting those people into place. The most natural way to get them into a targeted country would be as embassy staff, but many countries have expelled Libyan diplomats (Spain being one of the most recent). Indeed, even those that were able to remain in place find themselves in a very tough position, as Libya’s diplomatic corps was hit by mass defections when the rebellion broke out. The biggest challenge by far, however, is that countries have long been aware of the dangers posed by hosting a Libyan embassy, and so they certainly have been monitoring them, identifying intelligence agents among the embassy personnel, and expelling them–precisely what happened, for instance, in the case of Spain.
We can’t write off the threat of Gaddafi. However, just as the drone strikes have deprived al Qaeda of a lot of its best leaders, expulsions of Libyan intelligence operatives, and close monitoring of those that remain, will make an attack much harder. It is possible that Libyan operatives could enter through another Schengen Zone country and travel to their targets, but the no-fly zone and constant harrassment of Libyan command and control facilities by NATO bombers and electronic warfare assets will make organizing such an operation difficult. Europe has little to fear from the madman of Tripoli.