ISIS tries to gain foothold in Libya, posing threat to Europe
Tunis - Defeated militarily in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS) is regrouping in southern and central Libya, seeking to gain a foothold in areas torn apart by years of violence.
With its capacity diminished, however, the jihadist group seems unable to seize large areas. It is reverting to hit-and-run tactics to destabilise the country.
“ISIS has become the enemy of the vast majority of the Libyan people,” a report released by the Atlantic Council concluded in June 2017.
The report, titled “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya,” indicated that ISIS suffered losses in the Libyan cities of Derna and Sirte “by killing too many people and brutally crushing resistance.”
“I wouldn’t say the threat is ‘major’ if we compare ISIS strength today to its potency in Libya two years ago,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs
ISIS is believed to have about 1,000 fighters active in Libya with most of them in central areas where the jihadist group has kept a relatively low profile.
“The modus operandi of ISIS seems more diffuse, more nimble and mobile across a large swath of territory,” Harchaoui said.
However, ISIS’s presence in Libya appears sufficient to cause substantial damage, especially with the main Libyan factions more war-fatigued than they were one or two years ago.
While experts do not expect ISIS to regain the influence it once had, its strategy has proved successful. Many fear that Libya could turn into the next front in the fight against ISIS.
“We’ve seen ISIS attempt to establish a foothold [in Libya],” Mark Mitchell, the acting US assistant secretary of defence, said in December. “They have not been successful. We’ve managed to strike some of their training camps and set them back pretty significantly but it’s an area where I think we’ll see them continue.”
While the stings of military defeats in Syria and Iraq have thwarted ISIS’s goal of creating an Islamic caliphate, the organisation is far from dead.
In Libya, ISIS has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to carry out attacks against key targets. On October 4, the group hit a courthouse in Misrata, killing four and wounding more than 40. The Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar — ISIS’s nemesis in western Libya — has tried to keep the group at bay. Last August, ISIS reportedly attacked an LNA checkpoint in the southern town of Jufra, beheading nine fighters and two civilians.
ISIS is expected to continue such attacks in 2018. Analysts said ISIS wants to create a power vacuum after which it would step in to establish a caliphate.
The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the United States would continue to support Libya’s counterterror efforts and protect its natural resources.
“The United States stands by its Libyan counterparts and supports their efforts to combat terrorist threats and defeat ISIS there,” AFRICOM spokeswoman Robyn Mack said, noting that ISIS is likely to plot attacks on eastern Libya’s oil crescent, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported.
“At the moment, we believe that the organisation (ISIS-Libya) is likely to give priority to the restructuring of security forces and infrastructure, and to launch strikes, which may include targets in the Libyan oil crescent,” Mack was quoted as saying.
LNA spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Mesmari confirmed the reports to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. “Yes, they have tried more than once to reach the oil crescent,” he said.
The strategic oil crescent, 500km east of Tripoli, holds the country’s largest oil reserves, as well as the ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Brega.
In view of a ferocious economic crisis, Libya can hardly afford attacks against its sole wealth-generating sector: oil installations.
LNA units have conducted patrol missions in Libya’s oil crescent to monitor ISIS’s movements. The army also initiated air strikes, destroying ISIS camps near oil fields and ports.
The army is preparing to enter Derna, which is under the control of extremist militias, a senior Libyan military official said.
The remaining ISIS pockets operate in the desert region of Sirte, which overlooks the oil crescent. The rugged terrain there includes many valleys and a vast stretch of desert, giving ISIS an advantage over advancing troops.
Libya has been mired in conflict since the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Today, Libya is highly fragmented and large areas remain ungoverned. Attempts to form a unity government have been unsuccessful. Such conditions make the North African country a perfect haven for jihadists and fertile ground for recruiting fighters.
ISIS’s new front in Libya constitutes a serious threat to Europe, which has islands less than 500km to the north. If ISIS gains control of Libya’s coastline, it could control the flow of migrants into Europe and tap into an additional source of funding.
Libya’s porous borders would also give ISIS an opportunity to move freely in and out of the territory and recruit more fighters.
In March 2016, ISIS forces attempted to seize the city of Ben Guerdane, Tunisia, on the border with Libya, but were repelled by the Tunisian military and security forces with the support of townspeople.
“Today, Tunisia, with international assistance, has stronger border security but we can still imagine a new surprise attack against the country. Algeria and Egypt are also possible targets,” Harchaoui said.