Libya four years after: A land divided where ISIS thrives
Appeals from Libya’s internationally recognised government for Western weapons to confront the threat from the local franchise of the Islamic State (ISIS) have fallen on deaf ears.
The aid is being withheld while world powers press for a rapprochement between the “official” government, currently operating out of a five-star hotel in the eastern city of Tobruk, and a rival Islamist-backed administration based in similar upscale accommodation in the capital, Tripoli.
The two rivals appear more intent on fighting each other than confronting the growing ISIS threat. Recent actions by Tobruk have done little to encourage Tripoli to make peace. In March, it named a fiercely anti-Islamist strongman to lead its army in an increasingly fragmented civil war.
The legislators holed up in Tobruk may have been hoping that the nomination of Major-General Khalifa Haftar, a one-time ally of the late Muammar Qaddafi who became an opponent in exile but quit his home in Virginia in 2014 to fight his latest battle to determine the future of the country, would strike fear into the hearts of their Tripoli rivals.
The problem is that the general, seen as Libya’s version of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, makes little distinction between Tripoli’s Muslim Brotherhood elements, who need to be incorporated into any national settlement, and extremists such as ISIS.
As ISIS has shown in Syria and Iraq, it thrives on chaos, disorder and divisions among its potential enemies. By combining its gruesome version of the propaganda of the deed with a healthy cash pile, it has succeeded in drawing recruits from the disillusioned ranks of its rivals.
Libya, almost four years after Western intervention in favour of a disparate revolutionary movement hastened the fall of Qaddafi, offers ISIS fertile ground.
It should not be that way. There is no Shia-Sunni fault line in overwhelmingly Sunni Libya; divisions are tribal and geographic, rather than religious.
Those divisions include the long-running rivalry between Libya’s dominant Arab population and the Berber – or Amazigh – population which was repressed by the Qaddafi regime and saw the revolution that toppled him as an opportunity to reassert their rights. The conflict among the groups that would ideally be uniting to confront ISIS is therefore more political than it is religiously inspired.
Nevertheless, the failure of the country’s mainstream political rivals to sink their differences risks letting ISIS consolidate its as yet slender stake in North Africa, a prospect that is already causing alarm bells to ring across the Mediterranean in Fortress Europe.
“All ISIS needs is a place where the government is so weak that they can govern territory — something which distinguishes it from al-Qaeda,” according to Jason Pack, a researcher and Libya expert at Britain’s Cambridge University.
ISIS focused its offensive on Derna, barely 160 kilometres west of Tobruk, before moving towards Sirte, and declared areas it claimed to occupy as part of a Libyan governorate of the self-declared Islamic caliphate.
Referring to an ISIS warning that it could use Libya as a springboard to take its jihad as far as Rome, Pack told The Arab Weekly the group posed a “credible threat” to Europe.
Since 2011, Libya’s post-revolution scenario has descended into a now-familiar rivalry involving Muslim Brotherhood elements and secular and tribal revolutionaries. That rivalry has congealed into a conflict between the Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments.
The former represents an alliance that ranges from al-Qaeda jihadists, through the moderate Brotherhood to regional tribes. Its armed wing is Libya Dawn.
The Tobruk-based House of Representatives is recognised by Western governments and the United Nations and backed by Haftar’s private army. It is the result of elections in June in which Islamists won only 15% of the vote.
The threat posed by ISIS has given added impetus to the shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino Leon, the UN envoy to Libya, who has striven to heal the rift between Tripoli and Tobruk.
ISIS exploited the rivalry by bombing the Tripoli government’s headquarters in late January. The following month ISIS claimed further attacks and published videos showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, a massacre that prompted retaliatory air strikes by Egypt’s military-led government.
“The capture of public installations in Sirte and the attack last month on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli reflect a growing ability and determination on the part of Islamic State to exploit the political crisis… to consolidate its presence and influence across Libya,” Leon told the UN Security Council in a mid-February video link.
The prospect of the West directly intervening – again – or even arming factions it supports is unlikely. The focus of US, British and UN policy remains to get Tobruk and Tripoli back to the negotiating table.