The group is beheading Christians and attacking oil fields. But Libya won't be as easy to take as Iraq or Syria.
The Islamic State’s videotaped beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach — and the airstrikes Cairo launched in response — have sparked fears that the terrorist group is trying to expand its self-proclaimed caliphate into a third country. That may be harder than the militants think: Libya isn’t Iraq or Syria, and it won’t be easy for the Islamic State to duplicate its earlier successes.
That’s because the militants face competition from other well-entrenched Islamist groups in Libya and also because the country lacks the kind of sectarian divide that provides kindling for escalating violence. The Islamic State’s success in Iraq and Syria was fueled in part by its control of some of the region’s richest oil fields, but the group will be hard-pressed to turn Libya’s oil reserves into a steady source of financing.
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer, said the Islamic State’s presence in Libya “has great potential to blow up into a security nightmare, but [is] also one that is a football used by many competing sides.”
Skinner, who is now at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security intelligence firm, said the question now is “how much traction do they get in the slippery soil of Libyan conflict and politics?”
The terrorist outfit, also known as ISIS, appears to be steadily expanding its operations inside Libya, though the gains there don’t compare with its campaigns in Iraq or Syria. On Sunday, Feb. 15, it released a video showing the killings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians whom it had kidnapped in Libya. In retaliation, Egypt on Monday launched an airstrike against Islamic State targets inside the coastal Libyan town of Derna. The group has also hit oil facilities and pipelines. Additionally, in January the group claimed responsibility for an attack against the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which killed 10 people.
The explosion of Islamic State violence in Libya seemed to bear out the warnings that some Libyan officials have been making in recent weeks. “Libya is becoming the gas station, ATM, and airport for ISIS,” Aref Ali Nayed, the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from Libya’s al Bayda-based government, said in an interview with Foreign Policy last month. (Libya has dueling governments: one based in the capital, Tripoli, and another internationally recognized government based in the east. Nayed represents the eastern government.)
And the Islamic State’s foothold in Libya, which could be used as a launching pad for attacks outside the country, also poses a risk to neighbors such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, said Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East and North Africa analysis at IHS Country Risk.
The Islamic State’s efforts to broaden its theater of operations beyond Syria and Iraq began last year, when the terrorist group dispatched one of its top recruiters from headquarters in Syria to Libya, a senior U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy. The militant group also started encouraging its Libyan members to return home to fight, he said.
Libya has traditionally provided human cannon fodder to wage jihad in other countries; on a per capita basis, Libya’s 6 million people have provided more fighters for conflicts in Iraq and Syria than any other countries. But now, the home front is turning into a battlefront.
Skinner said the Islamic State counted about 550 Libyan fighters in its ranks as of late last summer, a number that he said has certainly grown. He said that today there are about 1,000 to 3,000 fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Libya, many of whom have returned home with considerable front-line combat experience.
Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which focuses on U.S. counterterrorism efforts, said the Islamic State “has been primarily drawing from young recruits who have fought in Iraq and Syria and are coming back to Libya and who have basically drunk the Islamic State Kool-Aid.”
The Islamic State now has self-declared provinces in Tripoli, the southwest region of Fezzan, and the eastern region of Barqa, which includes the cities of Benghazi and Derna. Although the group is getting stronger inside Libya, Joscelyn said its strength is sometimes overstated. He noted that it does not control all of Derna, where rival groups like the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade still play a major role.
“These zones are more aspirational than they are real,” Joscelyn said. “They want to give people the sense that the caliphate is growing.”
He said that though groups with links to al Qaeda aren’t grabbing attention with grisly videos, they are using more subtle power plays to expand the group’s influence on the ground.
“It leads to an overestimate of the Islamic State and an underestimate of al Qaeda and al Qaeda-linked groups,” Joscelyn said.
One of the challenges to the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya is that the country lacks the divide among Sunni and Shiite Muslims that exists in Iraq and Syria. That split enabled the Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq, to unleash a sectarian civil war in Iraq. But virtually all of Libya’s Muslims are Sunni, removing that potential source of strife.
“They won’t be able to ignite a sectarian war,” Skinner said. “The only way they’re going to get bigger is by co-opting other groups.”
The final challenge has to do with oil. Libya is rich in the stuff, but the Islamic State in Libya likely won’t be. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State used oil wealth to become one of the best-financed terrorist groups in history, though the group’s ability to turn black gold into millions of dollars a day in revenue has been degraded by Western airstrikes on oil facilities and falling oil prices. The Islamic State has been trying to get its hands on Libya’s oil, but that’s proving to be much harder. Late last week, terrorists attacked security forces at two oil fields in a bid to control them. One of them, Mabruk, was hit for the second time this month, and an oil pipeline was also attacked.
The terrorist group has not yet managed to wrest control of the oil fields, as it had done in Syria and Iraq. But its battle for oil is part of a wider struggle between Libya’s dueling governments and militias for control of the country’s resources. With violence rising, Libyan officials said over the weekend that growing violence could force the shutdown of the country’s oil production. The country’s oil output has already fallen from about 1.6 million barrels a day before the Arab Spring to less than 300,000 barrels a day today. Pipeline attacks make it harder for the government to earn oil-export money that could be used to bolster the fragmented state.
Converting black gold into actual gold is also much harder in Libya than in Iraq or Syria. Libya’s oil installations are deep in the country’s interior, far from population centers. At the same time, instead of a proliferation of small-scale oil refineries that enabled the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to smuggle products such as diesel to local markets, Libya has big refineries, which are in the hands of other militias right now. All that makes it hard to turn oil fields into oil wealth.
“The challenge in North Africa in general, and Libya in particular, is that it’s not enough to grab an oil field in order to capture income from the resources,” said Geoff Porter, founder of North Africa Risk Consulting. “You’d have to capture the entirety of the sector, from well to export terminal,” he said.
Matthew Reed, an energy expert at Foreign Reports, a consultancy, said that the Islamic State in Syria had its “own refining network,” a situation that doesn’t exist in Libya.
“There aren’t any mom-and-pop refiners to speak of, and major refineries are all secured by one faction or another,” he said.
That would leave oil exports as the only way to capitalize on the country’s crude. But as seen last year, when rebel leader Ibrahim al-Jathran seized an oil-export port in the country’s east, finding buyers for that crude is a tall order. One rebel group finally loaded an oil tanker last spring with what the Libyan and U.S. governments considered stolen oil, only to see it intercepted by two dozen U.S. Navy SEALs while it was steaming through the Mediterranean. That put paid to militia efforts to directly export big volumes of Libyan crude, and things won’t be any easier for the Islamic State.
“You may have all the oil in the world, but if you can’t get it to market, it’s worth spit,” said Porter.
Photo credit: Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty