Maghreb experts wary of ISIS expansion
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.