The ISIS threat in North Africa
While the world’s attention was on the serious threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, fighters claiming allegiance to the extreme Islamist terrorist organisation were expanding their reach in Libya. Many of the tactics used there are similar to those of ISIS in the Levant. On May 29th, ISIS took control of the Sirte airport and military base after the Tripoli government-affiliated troops withdrew. On May 31st, an ISIS operative attacked a checkpoint near Misrata, killing five militiamen and wounding seven others.
Sirte, 450 kilometres east of Tripoli, is the birthplace of fallen dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The jihadists have been working to establish their presence in Sirte and other places, such as Derna and Subrata, for the last couple of years. Many members of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia switched allegiance to ISIS.
Sirte airport is about 150 kilometres from Libya’s “oil crescent” — the site of major oilfields and export terminals. The Libyan government of Tobruk suspects ISIS of planning to take over the oilfields to fund its operations, as it did in Syria and Iraq. The jihadist organisation also has its sights set on main water supplies and unsecured arms depots.
“Libyan cities are coming under increased threat from this group and it will become difficult to confront them, like in Iraq,” warned Abdullah al-Thani, the prime minister of the internationally recognised Libyan government in Tobruk.
International mediators, led by the United Nations, continue to work for a negotiated solution to the political conflict between the Tobruk government and the rival Islamist administration in the capital Tripoli.
Despite many rounds of talks, there has been no tangible result. Any settlement will have to consider not only the calculations of the main belligerents but also Libya’s complex tribal make-up. That will not be an easy task.
Libya’s neighbours have a stake in peace and security in Libya. The most vocal have been the Europeans. The European Union’s border agency is considering plans to conduct operations closer to the Libyan coast to neutralise illegal migration ships. That might pit the Europeans against smugglers without addressing the deep roots of the problem in Libya.
The more serious concern, however, relates to the security of Libya’s immediate neighbours in North Africa. Since February, ISIS has targeted innocent Egyptian and Ethiopian workers in Libya. If allowed, it would wreak havoc across Libya’s borders.
Tunisia has already suffered from terrorist activities by Tunisian extremists trained in Libya. This includes the perpetrators of the terror attack on the Tunis Bardo museum which killed 20 foreign tourists. Hundreds of Tunisian extremists are reported to be fighting in Libya within the ranks of ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia. The most recent suicide attack near Misrata was attributed to a Tunisian fighter.
Without an urgent solution to the Libya crisis, jihadist organisations can further take root in Libya and spread mayhem in North Africa, the way they have already done in Syria and Iraq.