Posted on: 1st February 2016
With international coalition strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq ongoing, US President Barack Obama has instructed his national security advisers to boost efforts against ISIS in Libya. His order sends a signal that the militant group may be a greater threat in the restive North African state than many might have imagined.
Remarks by US officials give an indication of the extent of the threat. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has acknowledged that ISIS is still establishing training facilities in Libya and welcoming large numbers of foreign fighters. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, meanwhile, revealed this week that "a small number of military personnel" have already been dispatched to Libya to get a better sense of the situation on the ground.
This rhetoric comes amid reports that Downing Street is in talks with Libyan authorities to deploy at least 1,000 British troops to bolster local forces and coordinate militias in operations against ISIS militants.
ISIS may be eyeing Libya as a retreat from Iraq and Syria.
France is also concerned. Foreign Minster Manual Valls has said his country must defeat ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and "probably tomorrow in Libya." French worries even prompted the country to station troops 45 miles off Libya's southern border, whilst Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned of a "risk that ISIS fighters could make the crossing [across the Mediterranean], mixing in with refugees."
These developments suggest that, despite the overwhelming international focus on fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Libya has emerged as a key battleground for the group. But what does it actually stand to gain in Libya?
According to recent reports, ISIS' numbers in the North African state have swollen significantly since it first announced its presence in there in November 2014. Its ranks have risen from 200 or so fighters to over 3,000 – a tenfold increase in just over 12 months. The group has developed its Libyan presence from a ragtag bunch of militants looking to capitalise on the ISIS brand to a sophisticated operation with territorial control. ISIS' self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even dispatched one of his senior enforcers from the Iraqi battlefield to help shore up its presence in Libya.
In light of this territorial control, which stretches across vast coastal areas around the cities of Sirte and Derna in the north and northeast respectively, some suggest that ISIS' leadership is eyeing Libya as a possible retreat should international efforts in Syria and Iraq pose too much of a threat.
ISIS has demonstrated its prowess in exploiting domestic instabilities to gain footholds, just as it has done in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt. What makes Libya stand out is that, rather than having weak national structures, it has no functioning national structures. Since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi's regime in 2011, Libya has descended deeper and deeper into lawlessness, with rival factions and militias wrestling for control. Just this week Libya's internationally recognised parliament rejected the formation of the recently agreed UN-backed unity government. Amid this turbulence, ISIS has been able to gradually build a strong presence in the country.
Libya is strategically important, too. With its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte, ISIS now holds territory in the centre of the North African coast. Not only does the group sit between its North African neighbours Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, it now has a crucial base on the doorstep of Europe. Libya is a popular transit route for migrants seeking to reach European shores. The Paris attack in November 2015 highlighted the challenges and dangers of the untracked movement of individuals into the continent, where terrorists are able to exploit the cover of refugees to gain entry.
ISIS has thrived on Libya's governance vacuum.
Oil has proven to be a lucrative endeavour for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, helping it transform territorial spoils into operational funding. The chief of ISIS in Libya, Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani, has reportedly cited Libya's vast oil resources as a key asset for the group. Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute views ISIS activities in Libya "as a direct extension of what it has done in Iraq and Syria." In fact, ISIS' attacks on Libyan oil infrastructure in recent weeks echo the tactics employed by the group in seizing control of similar facilities in the Middle East.
The broader implications of ISIS gaining strength in Libya are troubling. Three ISIS attacks in Tunisia last year - the Bardo National Museum, the Sousse resort, and an attack on the presidential guard in the capital Tunis - were linked back to the group in Libya. Algerian authorities have suspended all flights to Libya, 500 Moroccans have been stopped from trying to join the group in Libya, and there have been reports of ISIS militants in Libya crossing into western Egypt. Concerns over ISIS has even prompted Sudan to increase security on its borders to avoid becoming a transit route for would-be jihadis.
ISIS does face considerable challenges to its growth in Libya from those who oppose its ideology and from rival jihadi groups, however. Bloody clashes last year between ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade in the eastern town of Derna resulted in ISIS' near-expulsion from the town. This shows that ISIS may struggle to mobilise support, even in those urban centres that have historically harboured jihadi militancy. Meanwhile, in ISIS' Libyan stronghold of Sirte, the group has been bolstered by the inability of Islamists and anti-Islamists to cooperate against it.
ISIS has thrived so far on the governance vacuum that has plagued Libya since full-scale civil war broke out in 2014. A month after the UN-backed plan for a united Libyan government was agreed in Morocco, divisions between the rival Tripoli-based General National Congress and UN-recognised House of Representatives in Tobruk, show little sign of abating. ISIS will continue to exploit this fragmented and turbulent context for as long as stability and factional collaboration eludes Libya.