Maghreb experts wary of ISIS expansion

Friday 26/06/2015
Tunisian soldiers stand guard outside Sidi Bouzid hospital

TUNIS - Maghreb experts see a real danger in the continuing expan­sion of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya, but they offer different scenarios for the future.

“In the space of two months, the Islamic State in Libya was able to recruit 3,000 additional fight­ers, expand west from Derna and Sirte, get closer to the oil crescent and threaten Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata,” noted retired Algerian colonel Romdhane Hamlet on June 16th at a Tunis conference.

In early June, ISIS seized a power plant and an airbase in Sirte as well as the nearby city of Harawa.

Hamlet, who fought Islamist insurgents during Algeria’s Black Decade in the 1990s, warns that ISIS expansion could have “dis­astrous consequences” for the re­gion. ISIS’s task, he pointed out, is facilitated by the conflict between the troops of the internationally recognised government in Tobruk, led by General Khalifa Haftar, and Libya Dawn Islamists.

Hamlet warns that Misrata might be “the immediate military target” for ISIS.

Misrata, a town of 400.000 peo­ple 187 kilometres east of Tripoli, is strategically important and played a significant role in the 2011 upris­ing. The city hosts a steel produc­tion industry and an airbase.

According to Hamlet, the expe­rienced battalions in the city could be potential ISIS recruits.

“If Misrata falls, the Tunisian south will be destabilised,” Hamlet says.

Sheikh Farid al-Beji, a Tunisian religious scholar and member of the Tunisian Centre for Global Se­curity Studies, says Tunisia is not immune to ISIS, “a quasi-state with military, intelligence, economic, communication and preaching in­stitutions”. Beji said he is worried most by the draw of ISIS’s narra­tive, which seeks to “rattle soci­ety’s faith”.

“They were able to implant for­eign ideas and terminology in our daily lives, and some of our people adopted it,” explains Beji, presi­dent of the Zeitouni Dar al-Hadith Association. In addition to bolster­ing security capabilities, Beji says Tunisia is in need of “a unified reli­gious strategy” across the country to safeguard “our religious faith and doctrine”.

He sees a role for the country’s Zaytuna scholars, saying, “If 300 Zaytuna figures spoke in one lan­guage, people would be less in­clined to be swayed by extremist thought.”

The Zaytuna, a Tunisian mosque and centre of religious learning, has been a source of moderate Sunni thought even before the country’s independence in 1956.

Hamlet said he was also con­cerned about the impact of ISIS’s moves on Algeria’s security. “Libya and Algeria share a 982km border. It’s hard for any army in the world to secure such a frontier,” he said, adding that “it is way easier to sneak in from the Tunisian-Alge­rian border than from the Libyan south, due to geographical and so­cial factors.”

Rafaa Tabib, a political anthro­pologist, sees things differently. He says ISIS poses a minimal threat to Tunisia. “The Islamic State can’t stand against armies. ISIS troops can fill vacuum situations and col­lapsed areas,” says Tabib.

Hamlet does not exclude an ISIS offensive from Libya towards the east. “They already have a strong eastern front,” he said. “They will seek to continue their advance and erase borders with Egypt, with the help of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Si­nai.”

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a jihad­ist organisation that has claimed responsibility for many attacks on security forces in the Sinai, pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014.

The emergence of ISIS in Libya, experts point out, is tied to the country’s internal dynamics. Tabib offers an explanation: “ISIS has ap­peared in Libya as soon as talks of a unity government started. Where did it first appear? In Sirte, home­land of the Qaddafi tribe.”

He points out that the militias which are loyal to Qaddafi’s tribe joined forces with ISIS and invited it to Sirte in a “marriage of conveni­ence”. The Qaddafi tribe seemed to be acting based on the fear that any post-conflict settlement would ex­clude them from any role in Libya.

This trend could repeat itself in Libya adding to the potential of ISIS expansion.

“Many militias that are unable to sustain themselves will turn to the Islamic State for funds and pledge allegiance to them,” says Tabib. “They won’t be part of the Islamic State’s core, but they will form part of its strategy.”

Some experts see the European Union and its Western allies push­ing for a swift solution to the prob­lems in Libya because of their ea­gerness to curb the flow of illegal immigrants, stop ISIS expansion and ensure uninterrupted oil pro­duction. Tabib confides: “I was in Libya a month ago. Foreign intel­ligence teams in the west and in Fezzan were everywhere and have already laid the groundwork.”

Tabib says that if the UN-bro­kered talks prove fruitless, a West­ern intervention is inevitable. “A new government will be imposed on the Libyans, with UN blue hel­mets if need be,” he said.