How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?
More than you think -- and it’s growing. But putting boots on the ground could only make the situation worse.
The world is waking up to the threat posed by the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya over the past year. The renewed Western focus on combating the group is related to the Nov. 13 Paris attacks — although they had nothing to do with Libya — and the increasing recognition that the U.N.-brokered Libyan Political Agreement signed on Dec. 17 is, for the moment at least, unimplementable. Therefore, a national unity government able to take on the Islamic State will not be in place any time soon. But the urge to act, or to be seen acting, against the Islamic State should not be a reason to embark on a new large-scale military adventure in Libya — one that would have unpredictable results and likely worsen the situation on the ground by making the Libyan conflict harder to resolve.
The first step to a more nuanced approach is to accurately assess the challenge the Islamic State poses in Libya. Only after understanding its spread, size, and tactics can the international community develop a proper strategy for rolling back its recent gains.
The group dominates a 120-mile stretch of territory extending east along the coast from the town of Sirte, seized almost entirely during 2015. This is its most significant achievement, because this territory provides it with a relatively safe base from which to attract new recruits and plan attacks elsewhere.
The Islamic State also has a presence, but does not control significant territory, in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. It has been conducting guerrilla warfare in some neighborhoods there and has reportedly absorbed other armed groups, most notably elements of Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Islamist group that was part of the loose alliance of rebels that rose against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. It also has a proven ability to carry out hit-and-run operations in western Libya, most probably through a network of cells, including in the capital of Tripoli. It has thus been able to carry out spectacular attacks outside of its own territory, including the deadliest suicide bombing in Libyan history at a police training facility in the western town of Zliten, which killed at least 60 people on Jan. 7.
How much support does the Islamic State have in Libya?
Estimates of the Islamic State’s military strength differ wildly. The United Nations estimates that the group commands 2,000 to 3,000 fighters there, U.S. intelligence sources peg its fighting strength at 5,000 to 6,000 men, and French sources claim that it commands over 10,000 fighters.
The lower end of that scale appears more realistic, if only because there is a tendency toward number inflation, not least by the Islamic State itself. After all, the group has made its expansion in Libya an important part of its propaganda since October 2015, conjuring the specter of using the country as a jump-off point to Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of the Maghreb. That ambition has sometimes been reflected in the alarming prognostics of some Western analysts — notably in military circles — that warn of the emergence of an unbroken “axis” of jihad running from Nigeria through Libya to Syria and Iraq and on to Afghanistan. In the Libyan context, what is most alarming is the Islamic State’s rate of growth, as the group probably had fewer than 1,000 followers 18 months ago — even if more mainstream armed groups are larger and better-equipped.
Perhaps most fundamental to understanding the Islamic State’s relative success in Libya is the question of how it grew. Initially, its success appeared chiefly driven by its victories in Syria and Iraq, most notably the capture of the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul. This allowed the Islamic State’s fledgling Libyan affiliate to attract new followers from the many other armed groups, Islamist or not, that existed in the country. It was most successful in drawing members of Ansar al-Sharia, in part because it assassinated leaders of the group who refused to give their allegiance.
More recently, Libya has been an attractive destination as the group has suffered setbacks and bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State propaganda has, for instance, encouraged new recruits to head to Libya rather than the Levant, in part because it is easier to reach — but also because the group’s leadership sees Libya as the opening of a new front with opportunities for expansion elsewhere in Africa. There is also evidence that senior commanders from the Iraq/Syria front moved to Libya over 2015, bringing greater organizational and military expertise to the local franchise.
What is the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya?
The jihadi group has expanded by exploiting the chaotic political and military landscape that followed former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall. It’s biggest success to date, the control of Sirte and surrounding towns, comes in an area dominated by tribes mostly still loyal to the former regime (Sirte was Qaddafi’s birthplace). The region was neglected by the post–2011 authorities despite extensive destruction during the uprising. Apart from Ansar al-Sharia, which secured a dominant presence in Sirte when it fell to rebel forces in 2011, no significant rival local militias established a strong presence there.
The Islamic State was able to seize Sirte in February 2015 not because it was strong, but because it faced no real resistance. Its capture of the city allowed it to secure small neighboring towns such as Harawa, which avoided a bloody struggle with IS by surrendering in an agreement brokered by town elders. IS-affiliated militias were thus able to capture several nearby towns with only a few hundred men. It was only later, when it grew in size and more experienced fighters and administrators joined from Syria, that it began to impose the draconian order for which the group is infamous, enforced with public beheadings, stoning of adulterers, and amputations.
Mainstream Libyan political and security forces, meanwhile, ignored the problem. Although they made much noise about liberating Sirte over the course of 2015, in reality the city was abandoned to its fate: No one had both the capacity and willingness to retake it.
As the Islamic State becomes more aggressive toward its neighbors and threatens Libya’s petroleum infrastructure, however, its rivals’ calculus may change. In January 2016, IS conducted attacks such as the Zliten bombing — targeted at the military power of the nearby city of Misrata, from which western Libya’s most powerful militias hail — and began to move eastwards toward the oil port of Sidra and refinery of Ras Lanuf. It also advanced on oil production sites in the southern desert, challenging militias in charge of protecting an area known as the “oil crescent.” In doing so, it is threatening both its chief military rivals and the economic lifeline upon which Libya depend.
For now, however, the West’s hope for a united Libyan response to IS remains far off. This is in part because mainstream Libyan militias, for all their braggadocio, tend to avoid outright confrontation, especially if there is a risk of a tribal escalation of violence. They are chiefly interested in controlling their own territory and hesitate to stray too far from their home region. They also fear that tangling with IS will weaken their defense against more conventional enemies. Finally, even if Libya’s rival factions have come to recognize that IS represents a serious long-term threat, the dialogue and coordination that would be necessary among security actors to mount a joint response is practically non-existent.
What’s the blueprint for defeating the Islamic State in Libya?
The international community’s hope that a unity government could take the lead in fighting IS has remained just that: a hope. It is not likely to be fulfilled anytime soon if the world’s focus remains on securing a top-down political deal. The implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement is already stalling, just as the talks that preceded it stalled until Western and regional powers imposed it on largely recalcitrant Libyan stakeholders. This situation was predictable as long as diplomatic efforts continued to focus on Libyan political actors who are unable to bring along most of their supporters.
Current efforts to create a unity government are not likely to bear fruit without far more significant efforts to resolve the most contentious issue of all: How will rival armed groups operate under a unity government, and who will be in charge?
To begin to resolve this issue, the country’s security stakeholders — the militia leaders, army commanders, and local strongmen — should start a dialogue on the issues of importance to them. This needs to be a bottom-up process; the politicians who act as their proxies cannot do it in their name. A security track to the peace process, aimed at creating channels for dialogue and local-level conflict resolution, would not supplant the political track, but rather complement it. It could create goodwill that might foster local-level breakthroughs and offer opportunities to break the current national deadlock. It could address issues that have been sidestepped by diplomacy thus far, from the future of controversial personalities such as the fiercely anti-Islamist Gen. Khalifa Haftar to security arrangements in Tripoli that would allow any future unity government to function there.
Outsiders could provide guidelines for negotiations, and work to bring regional actors that have a stake in the conflict into agreement. These regional actors — most notably Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Qatar, and Turkey — should also be pressured to cease providing financial and military support to their proxies, and particularly to respect the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. An economic track, tasked with stemming the alarming decline of Libya’s finances and a growing humanitarian crisis, would be a third leg of such an approach. In short, Libya needs progress on several fronts, requiring a multi-level peace process grounded in the acknowledgement that a quick resolution of the conflict is an illusion.
Those who were hoping that the December agreement would allow for the rapid formation of an internationally recognized unity government are misguided. The temptation to simply recognize a government — even if it cannot set foot in Libya, and especially the capital — and get it to make an official request for foreign assistance is foolish. It would be instantly discredited among many Libyans, probably causing more new problems than it would resolve.
An effective ground military strategy against IS, particularly in the Sirte area, requires collaboration between militias that are currently rivals. A bottom-up approach addressing how this collaboration would work — establishing communication channels and eventually agreement on a chain of command, or at least a division of labor — could produce genuine results that contribute to both combating IS and supporting an overall political agreement.
Conversely, a top-down approach, in which a token national unity government invites outside help without addressing how Libya’s rival security forces would work together, is likely to heighten divisions and encourage each side to compete to be seen as the West’s best partner against IS. A likely outcome of such a strategy would thus be some setbacks for IS, but also new opportunities for its expansion in an increasingly chaotic and divided Libya.
What options are left to check the Islamic State’s progress in Libya? Since the prospect of large-scale intervention has always been fanciful, the remaining options include covert operations of the kind that have taken place in Libya since 2011, and coordinating a military operation with militias closest to IS’s stronghold in Sirte. Taking caution that such efforts remain as discreet and targeted as possible, while redoubling the resources given to a multi-tiered diplomatic initiative designed to restore order to the country, is the most reasonable course of action.
It is not morally, politically, nor strategically advisable to do nothing; this would amount to criminal neglect. But it would be even more foolhardy to overreact and sacrifice the painstaking work of a comprehensive peace process in Libya to the altar of the global fight against the Islamic State — and reap an even more powerful IS that would emerge in the ensuing chaos.
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