Is Libya the Next Stronghold of the Islamic State?

The chaotic civil war is giving the caliphate a foothold in North Africa, and its enemies can’t figure out whether to kill the jihadists or use them for their own purposes.

Opposition Battles Gaddafi's Forces In Eastern Libya
BEN JAWAT, LIBYA - MARCH 05: Rebel militiamen ride atop pickups with mounted weapons known as "technicals" while moving towards the frontline March 25 2011 in Ben Jawat, Libya. Opposition forces pushed government troops further west as they took more territory towards the Gaddafi stronghold of Surt. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Exactly four years after the protests that kicked off the Libyan revolution, the country has again found itself in the spotlight. On Feb. 15, a Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State released a sordid video showing the group’s militants marching a group of 21 prisoners whose only crime was being Christians, and foreigners. After a short speech from one of the jihadis, the Egyptian Coptic prisoners were simultaneously beheaded before the video panned to a scene of the blood-soaked Mediterranean Sea.

This slaughter was one of a recent spate of attacks the Islamic State has carried out in Libya this year. Its attacks include a Jan. 27 assault in Tripoli on the country’s largest hotel, which killed nine people, including an American, and a Feb. 20 suicide car-bombing attack in the eastern town of Qubbah, which killed 42 people.

What is the Islamic State trying to accomplish? Why has the jihadi group chosen Libya as a focus for its expansion? Do its attacks signal the emergence of a powerful new affiliate that will dominate the jihadi movement in North Africa?

The Islamic State comes to Libya

As it has become increasingly apparent that the Islamic State’s momentum has stalled in Iraq and Syria, the group has tried to show that it is still on the march by focusing on international expansion. The Islamic State dedicated considerable effort to luring Sinai-based jihadi groups into its orbit, ultimately coming away with one of the best prizes, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. In this effort, the Islamic State’s social media and film production acumen is not a luxury, but a necessity: Its chilling videos have managed to convince a number of mainstream media outlets that it has gained more of a foothold in Libya than is the case, including convincing some outlets that it had overtaken the city of Derna.

In reality, the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya has been more modest. Its militants recently seized control of Nawfaliyah, a small town just outside the coastal city of Sirte, encountering little resistance from local forces. The group has also made recent inroads in Sirte, seizing a number of government buildings as well as a university. Outside those two areas, however, the Islamic State has struggled to capture and hold territory: Although its fighters briefly controlled areas of Derna, it was driven out by other jihadi forces, including a group connected to al Qaeda, and it now only controls a few neighborhoods there.

Although the Islamic State has struggled to hold territory in Libya, it continues to attract recruits there. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, former CIA case officer Patrick Skinner estimated that the Islamic State had grown in Libya from about 550 fighters in the summer of 2014 to a current strength of 1,000 to 3,000 fighters. This includes a significant contingent that recently returned from Iraq and Syria.

In 2014, the Islamic State took a back seat to the larger conflict gripping Libya. On one side of the civil conflict is Operation Dignity, a coalition led by Khalifa Haftar, a former officer in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s military who defected during Libya’s ill-fated war in Chad in the 1980s and returned to the country in 2011 to join the anti-Qaddafi forces. On the other side is Libya Dawn, an umbrella military organization often referred to as an Islamist bloc, but which possesses a number of non-Islamist factions. Dawn captured the capital, Tripoli, in August.

Far from breaking only along Islamist versus nationalist lines, Libya’s conflict reflects several deeper divides, including ethnic, tribal, and regional tensions. Operation Dignity includes tribal militias, federalist militias, and armed brigades from the western mountain town of Zintan. Meanwhile, militias based in the western coastal city of Misurata — who think of themselves as revolutionaries, while considering their Zintani rivals to be counterrevolutionary — make up a prominent faction within Libya Dawn.

The conflict between Dignity and Dawn can be traced to several points, but the most important is May 2014, when Haftar launched a military offensive in Benghazi with the aim of eliminating its powerful Islamist militias. Two days after Haftar announced the Benghazi offensive, the conflict quickly escalated, as armed groups loyal to Operation Dignity stormed the General National Congress, a body dominated by Islamist parties and their revolutionary allies from Misurata, and demanded its dissolution.

The Dignity-Dawn conflict has devastated large parts of Libya and has created ungoverned spaces that have been exploited by criminal networks and jihadi groups. It is against this backdrop that the Islamic State managed to carve out a niche. Somewhat similar to its approach in Syria, the group often gained ground at the expense of its nominal allies that were preoccupied with fighting Haftar’s forces. For example, during the Islamic State’s brief period of rapid gains in Derna, its advances came at the expense of other groups that were on the front lines fighting against Operation Dignity.

What the Islamic State wants

While the Islamic State’s current territorial holdings are limited, conflict-racked Libya undeniably offers the group many opportunities for expansion. The country suffers from a weak government, deep internal divisions, a significant presence of jihadi factions that could be receptive to cooperating with or perhaps even joining the Islamic State, and an abundance of weaponry. Libya’s geography also makes it a desirable target for the Islamic State, as the country stands at the crossroads between North Africa and the Sahel, thus providing the group with the opportunity to coordinate with, or to try to co-opt, other regional jihadi movements. Moreover, Libya’s proximity to Europe provides the Islamic State a potential staging ground for attacks on Western soil. Many of these points were raised in an essay released in January by a well-known Islamic State propagandist.

So how does the Islamic State plan to increase its influence and territorial reach in Libya? At this point, a key component of its approach is seemingly to exacerbate schisms within the Operation Dawn coalition in an attempt to peel away hard-line members.

The Islamic State’s recent string of military operations seems designed to hasten the fragmentation of Dawn. Its attack in Tripoli occurred on Dawn-controlled territory, placing the cell of Islamic State attackers in direct confrontation with Dawn security forces. Further, the group’s beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians seemed intended as a direct provocation to Cairo — and indeed, Egyptian warplanes responded by carrying out a bombing campaign that appeared to be somewhat indiscriminate, rather than focused narrowly on Islamic State targets.

Drawing in Egypt could backfire. Dawn members who have been bombed by Cairo — unless they believe the conspiratorial nonsense that it was Haftar who killed the Christians — understand that the Islamic State is responsible for bringing a powerful new enemy to their doorstep. The recent attacks illustrate the Islamic State’s unreliability as a partner: Factions that are more strategic may shy away from its brutality and habit of making new enemies.

But it’s also possible that the Islamic State’s gamble could pay off and that Egypt’s further involvement could provoke splits within Dawn between hard-liners and more pragmatic groups. This could happen if Egypt’s indiscriminate bombing magnifies Islamist hard-liners’ fixation on the threat posed by Haftar and Cairo, thus making them more amenable to the Islamic State’s argument that moderates within Dawn who are willing to negotiate with Operation Dignity are betraying their faith.

Paradoxically, one of the most helpful factors for the Islamic State in surviving the current round of retaliation may be the fact that the group isn’t as strong in Libya as it is often portrayed. The country’s two major warring factions may therefore decide that they simply have higher priorities than the Islamic State — namely, defeating each other.

Haftar’s Operation Dignity has a clear incentive to fight the Islamic State last, after the Dawn factions. The jihadi group’s over-the-top villainy serves as the perfect foil for Operation Dignity. As the Islamic State continues to grab headlines, Haftar has a more persuasive case for outside assistance, presenting Operation Dignity as the best bulwark against the group’s expansionism.

Of course, Operation Dignity will be hard-pressed to ignore the Islamic State if the group continues to launch bloody raids in areas it controls. The Islamic State’s recent suicide attack in Qubbah will no doubt provoke retaliation from Haftar’s men.

Thus, despite the presence of jihadis in its coalition, Dawn may be the best hope for dealing a significant military blow to the Islamic State in the near future. The group has been antagonizing Dawn and has provoked Egypt to carry out attacks against Dawn members, and going after the Islamic State gives Dawn the opportunity to present itself to the international community as genuine moderates and potential security partners.

However, there is cause for skepticism that Dawn will actually take the fight to the Islamic State. Dawn officials have repeatedly denied the Islamic State’s presence in Libya, instead blaming the Jan. 27 hotel attack in Tripoli on Qaddafi-era officials, while claiming that the Islamic State’s beheading of Egyptian Christians was in fact a “Hollywood film” produced by domestic opponents. In addition to Dawn’s unwillingness to acknowledge the Islamic State threat, it has jihadis within its owns ranks.

Nevertheless, Dawn could still recognize the strategic benefits of going after the Islamic State. Even the jihadis within its coalition may go along as an extension of the al Qaeda-Islamic State rivalry that is playing out on the global stage. It is also worth noting that Dawn officials recently announced that the coalition was sending a battalion to Sirte to secure the city following the Islamic State’s bid to capture it.

The Islamic State’s escalating operations in Libya and the propaganda efforts surrounding these attacks are a telling sign that the group sees Libya as a new front line. But the group’s future success in Libya depends on whether it can exploit splits within Dawn and whether it can bolster its military capabilities before it becomes a higher-priority military target for the Dignity or Dawn coalitions. The real antidote for the Islamic State, though, is a resolution to the country’s destructive internal political divide: As long as the Libyan civil war continues, violent nonstate actors such as the Islamic State will be able to find a foothold.

The authors recently completed a monograph examining the Libyan civil war that was commissioned by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism — The Hague.

John Moore/Getty Images

Nathaniel Barr is a threat analyst at Valens Global, a D.C.-based consulting firm.

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