ISIS in Libya is more dangerous than in Syria and Iraq
Similar to what happened in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, where extremist groups found the right environment to attract followers under the guise of religious slogans, the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya is slowly making inroads on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, a stone’s throw from Europe.
The road for the ISIS’s rise was paved in 2011. When NATO’s mission in Libya ended with the killing of Muammar Qaddafi, the international community turned a blind eye to the seeds of extremism and terror brought in by the presence of rebels who had fought against Qaddafi’s army. The vacuum caused by the collapse of the Libyan state created perfect conditions for the germination of jihadist extremism.
In contrast to the city of Derna, which was a traditional haven for extremists and which became the birthplace of the first Islamic emirate in Libya at the beginning of 2012, the city of Sirte — Qaddafi’s hometown — seemed impervious to the extremist narrative. Its tribal make-up, cohesive social fabric and the strong legacy of Qaddafi’s regime made the growth of extremism seem unlikely.
But Sirte was scarred by attacks from rebels who destroyed much of the city and displaced many of its inhabitants. The corpse of Qaddafi was exposed in a freezer in Misrata’s market square for onlookers to gloat over.
As they have done in the past in destroyed cities such as Falluja, Ramadi, Mogadishu and Kandahar, hard-line groups flourished. ISIS announced its presence in the city in July 2013. In May 2015, it overtook Sirte, then Harawa, a main crossing towards the oil-rich crescent.
Many in Harawa have long felt marginalised. Despite its unique position on the coast and its fertile farms, Harawa lacked necessary infrastructure for its 3,000 residents. The takeover of Harawa appeared like a festive and voluntary surrender of the city to ISIS. This may signal that ISIS in Libya could be on the way to doing the same in other cities.
ISIS in Syria and Iraq laid its hand on government buildings and hospitals, infrastructure, working oil fields, dams, rivers and monetary deposits in banks in the areas that fell under its control. It became the richest terrorist organisation in the world, with renewable resources, things the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Islamic Courts in Somalia did not have.
The population of Sirte is tribal by character and belongs to the Maliki-Sunni faction of Islam. They are devout people by nature and know the Quran by heart. This explains the absence in the area of slogans espousing the jihad against apostates and Christians and Shia.
Despite the apparent integration of the Islamic State within the local Libyan puritanical and tribal cultures, the group may turn out to be more dangerous here than its brutal namesakes in Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq there still exists a state, an army, resources, weapons and an international coalition preoccupied by the expansion of the regime. A number of countries are endeavouring to contain its expansion.
In Libya, however, the prevailing political climate coupled with the collapse of state institutions and the coming apart of the tribal fabric under the repeated attacks since the fall of Qaddafi could incredibly turn ISIS into a desirable alternative for many Libyans, when compared to the rebels.
The latter are perceived by some Libyans as having displaced their families, orphaned their children and dispossessed them in the name of the revolution.
This could lead to the birth of an alliance between the communities that see themselves as having been victimised and whoever promises to avenge them, even if it is ISIS. This is exactly what happened in Afghanistan with the Taliban. They were welcomed by many of the communities that fell under their control. A similar scenario could play out in Libya again and again.