The growing ambitions of ISIS in Libya
Tripoli - The United States carried out its first air strike against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya, targeting Abu Nabil al-Anbari, the Iraqi-born deputy to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Anbari arrived in Libya some weeks previously and the United States clearly believed he was with ISIS forces in the Fataieh district, 10 km south-east of Derna. The Pentagon said it was “reasonably sure” that Anbari was dead; however, local sources claim that Anbari was not among the ten ISIS fighters killed in the November 13th strike.
Some reports said he was in Sirte, the main centre of ISIS power in Libya and where it brazenly “celebrated” the mass murder of 129 people in Paris by ISIS supporters. Others suggested that Anbari had left Libya.
Whether he had left or not, his presence in Libya is seen as a significant development in ISIS strategy.
Other senior members of the organisation are also known to have arrived recently from Iraq and Syria, via Turkey. One reason is that ISIS reportedly feels safe in Libya.
The absence of state powers across Libya has given ISIS easy opportunities for expansion. As well as Sirte, it controls the towns of Nufaliya and Harawa to the east and can act with impunity in an area stretching from Abu Grein, south-east of Misrata, to Ben Jawad near the oil terminal town of Sidra, 280 km further east, and south to the central oases towns of Hun and Waddan and towards Sebha.
It is a large swathe of Libya and has made the divide between east and west all the more complete. Land travel between the two sides is highly dangerous.
Control over the route south is strategically important to ISIS. It allows it to link up with Boko Haram, operating in Niger and Chad. It was reported in October that there were at least 84 ISIS fighters in Sirte. Some reports now put that figure at 200.
In the town itself, ISIS has enforced its rigid version of Islam through terror — executing those who dare transgress its rulings and condemning those opposed to it as kafir — non-Muslims — even to the extent of banning those it has executed from burial in Muslim cemeteries.
It also banned smoking, ordered barbers not to shave beards and enforced rigid dress codes. The residents who have not fled — 75% are reported to have departed — find it difficult to communicate with the outside world. Locals are allowed out only for medical reasons or as traders to bring in goods.
Meanwhile, ISIS has become increasingly bold.
It has filmed its fighters beheading or shooting foreign Christians, mainly Egyptians, Ethiopians and Eritreans in what was clearly a propaganda move. It has also carried out a series of suicide attacks, car bombings and lightning strikes mainly against Misrata.
And now ISIS seems to be looking further afield. In September, ISIS sent a team to free its “emir” of western Libya, who was being held in a prison at Tripoli’s Mitiga airbase. The operation failed and all four plus the “emir” died in the attack.
In another recent hit-and-run operation, fighters from Sirte attacked Brega, 330 km to the east, killing three members of the Petroleum Facilities Guard.
ISIS has fighters in Benghazi as well as in Ajdabiya, where they have been accused of the growing number of assassinations, particularly of Salafist imams.
In the south, ISIS is reported to have cells operating in Sebha and Oubari. And in the west, it is said to have its sights set on Bani Walid, 170 km south-east of Tripoli, and Sabratha, 80 km to its west. A leader of Sabratha, allegedly a Tunisian, is said to have been already appointed.
Even in the capital there are ISIS supporters. In Martyrs’ Square recently, some were seen handing out ISIS leaflets despite the presence of security forces. There was no attempt to stop them. In Emselata, 100 km east of Tripoli, ISIS is said to have growing support and is a serious problem.
The one setback has been in Derna from which ISIS was expelled in June by local mujahideen. Although ideologically not far removed from ISIS, they were well-organised and well-armed and deeply resentful of the large number of foreign ISIS fighters who were telling them how to be good Muslims.
There was a similar attempt by locals in Sirte in August to rid themselves of ISIS but, unlike the Derna mujahideen, they were quickly crushed and then savagely eliminated by ISIS.
Meanwhile, however, Derna’s mujahideen were unable to dislodge ISIS from the Fataieh area. A mujahideen raid November 15th aimed at taking advantage of a US air strike went disastrously wrong and the commander was killed.
It is in this situation, with local opposition to it fractured and ineffective, that ISIS feels comfortable and confident.
But that could be about to change. French President François Hollande has pledged that France will be “merciless” in counter-attacking ISIS following the Paris assaults and Sirte makes an easy target for French fighter planes.