ISIS is not Libya’s only jihadist threat
Tunis - The Islamic State (ISIS) is only one of the jihadist organisations jeopardising the security of Libya, UN experts and the North African country’s neighbours warned.
ISIS’s core leadership picked Libya into which it could expand beyond Iraq and Syria, dispatching trusted loyalists of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to supervise the groundwork of its franchise in the violence-torn North African country.
A statement from Libya’s six neighbouring countries and a UN report suggested that ISIS’s scheme to establish a fallback territory in Libya, however, did not go beyond recycling local extremist gangs and returning Libyan fighters.
Territorial control by ISIS has not spread outside Sirte, the hometown of late Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
ISIS moved into the ranks of feuding militias to capture Sirte, a Mediterranean coastal area close to the basin of oil and gas wealth in eastern Libya. It is about 600 km east of Sicily, making it the closest territory to Europe that ISIS controls.
Many in Sirte saw ISIS as a tool to hit back at new political forces in Libya and avenge the destruction of the city where Qaddafi was killed by rebels in 2011.
“ISIS is an evident short- and long-term threat in Libya. The group is benefiting from the ‘appeal’ and notoriety of ISIS in Iraq and in the Syrian Arab Republic,” the UN report stated. “However, the group’s threat should be realistically assessed. ISIS is only one player among multiple warring factions in Libya and faces strong resistance from the population, as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances.”
ISIS has yet to show the same eagerness to benefit from Libya natural resources as its central command has done in Iraq and Syria.
Several waves of Libyans have returned from battlefields in Syria and Iraq since 2013 and form the backbone of the ISIS branch in Libya, which continues to be a magnet for foreign terrorist fighters, largely from North Africa, according to the report seen by The Arab Weekly.
While ISIS has been focusing on Sirte, it could forge local alliances to spread its territorial clout and provide inspiration for other foreign fighters to join the group in Libya, the report added.
The document, issued December 1st, compiled intelligence assessments on ISIS and other groups in Libya from UN members and suggested the al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa as well as other terrorist organisations were using the country for rear bases and retreats.
While Ansar al-Sharia Derna and Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi seem to have weakened since the establishment of ISIS in Libya, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia continue to use the country as a rear base for operations in the region.
“Groups associated with al-Qaeda have established a significant presence in Libya, including facilities for training, implying a longer-term strategic goal to sustain a presence in the country (with external operations capability),” the report said.
“The resulting threat is regional and international, with particular significance for Africa, given the growing numbers of foreign terrorist fighters and the presence of a globalised group of terrorists from different al-Qaeda backgrounds.”
Al-Qaeda has benefited from weapons looted from Libyan Army stocks. Those arms played a significant role in the advances by al- Qaeda affiliates in northern Mali in 2012. After al-Qaeda affiliates were dislodged from Mali, the remaining fighters withdrew to Libya, according to the document.
ISIS and al-Qaeda have not replicated the enmity in Libya they displayed in Syria, even though they compete for clout and resources in some areas.
Libya’s neighbours — Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger and Tunisia — did not single out ISIS as the only threat from Libya when they met on December 1st and 2nd in Algiers to spur Libya’s political rivals into coming together to form a unity government.
They expressed their worries from the terrorism expansion in Libya especially ISIS, al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia and called for Intensifying efforts to ward off the phenomenon, the Libyan neighbours said in a statement.
They “deem the worsening of the situation in Libya will permit the development of terrorism and deepening instability in Libya. That forms a serious threat to neighbouring countries,” the statement said.
The UN report quoted an unnamed member as saying that at least 12 of the 28 individuals involved in the attack on the Tigantourine gas field near Amenas in Algeria by al-Mourabitoun and al- Mouaqaoune Biddam in January 2013, had been trained during the summer of 2012 in camps run by Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.
In addition, Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Derna took part on the September 11, 2012, attack against the US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.
A senior unnamed US Defense Department official told the New York Times the group expanded to about 2,000 fighters since it announced its affiliate in Libya, in what he said was “contingency planning” as it grows its forces.