The sinister aims of ISIS in Libya
Fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) established a foothold in Libya less than a year ago, and yet the group is becoming the main competition to armed Libyan militias and the most formidable fighting force in the region.
Made up mainly of Tunisian nationals, with Egyptians, Moroccans, Sudanese and a patchwork of other nationalities, ISIS forces possess the logistical means to move swiftly. They also possess modern weaponry, including tanks and anti-aircraft batteries, which gives them a definitive edge over the Libyan Islamist and tribal militias, who are inexperienced, divided and disorganised.
The establishment of ISIS in Libya comes within the framework of a hegemonic strategic vision that far exceeds the boundaries of Libya. It would be a serious mistake for the world to ignore this.
The presence of ISIS in Libya is rooted in the military stalemates in Syria and Iraq. ISIS leaders in the Levant may fear they will lose control of foreign fighters, who joined in the belief of a quick victory over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army. Better paid than the bulk of the local ISIS fighters, these foreign combatants have become a burden and are despised by the local population for their arrogance and ferocity. It is better for ISIS that the troops join the Maghreb war-front.
ISIS is pursuing the same strategy in Libya it has in the Levant.
First, establish a presence in regions where the local population is likely to be receptive. ISIS’s easy capture of the city of Sirte, former stronghold of long-time Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, is a case in point.
Sirte has symbolic importance for members of the former regime, which the Islamic State is trying to win over just as it did in Iraq with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party members. Sirte is just 150 kilometres from the “oil crescent” which, along with the capital, Tripoli, is a priority target. ISIS will not be able to sustain its momentum without significant funding, which seizing Libya’s oil fields could make possible.
If ISIS, which is unrelentingly advancing towards the Tunisian and Algerian borders, secures control along the Libyan coast — a very likely occurrence in the coming weeks — the strategic implications for the entire Mediterranean basin will be profound.
The Islamic State then will be at the gates of Europe and will have the capacity to destabilise the region for years to come.
Euro-Mediterranean security will largely depend on how the military situation in Libya unfolds. Yet, few seem to fully appreciate the serious threat ISIS poses in the Maghreb. The Libyan factions are bogged down in UN-sponsored negotiations whose outcome will be impossible to implement on the ground because of the continuously changing balance of power.
Lacking geopolitical foresight, Europe does not see the Libyan conundrum as a threat. The United States has assumed the role of observer and picks its targets as if the elimination of a single jihadist leader could change the course of events.
Libya is seen only through the prism of migration, and yet it is giving birth to a monster whose strategic objectives are based on an ideological and totalitarian vision of the world.
For ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph, control over Libya opens the road to militarily vulnerable Tunisia and to politically unstable Algeria. ISIS does not recognise borders. The whole world is its battlefield.
If ISIS wins in the Levant and the Maghreb, Egypt and the Gulf states will be caught in the vice and likely the next targets of a violent movement that wants only to see its black banner flutter over the territories without borders of the sixth caliphate.
This is by no means a fantasy scenario. All of ISIS’s literature, from its poems to its songs, highlights the glorious past in order to motivate its troops and lure new recruits.
ISIS military victories are appealing to a growing number of vulnerable and marginalised Maghrebi populations, meaning that the threat to countries in the region can come from within.
ISIS’s victories are in large part the consequence of a disturbing absence of strategic foresight on the part of the Mediterranean states that do not cooperate militarily and exchange very little intelligence, a vital weapon in the fight against terrorism.
The threat posed by ISIS is a reality that can no longer be denied. It presents a challenge to people on both sides of the Mediterranean and summons us all to respond vigorously, decisively and soon.