Why ISIS in Libya may be able to survive
When Islamic State (ISIS) fighters established their affiliate amid the chaos of Libya in 2014, they looked to exploit the country’s political divisions and geography to repeat the parent organisation’s success in Iraq and Syria.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said ISIS fighters in Libya are facing the “distinct possibility” of defeat in their last stronghold and are likely to scatter elsewhere in the nation and neighbouring countries.
Ban, in a report released July 19th to the UN Security Council, said it is estimated that ISIS has about 7,000 fighters in Libya. He said, however, as a result of the recent offensive against ISIS by Libyan forces “the current number of those in Sirte is now likely well under 1,000″ with many others likely regrouping “in smaller and geographically dispersed cells across Libya and in the region”.
ISIS fighters can survive and regroup as a result of Libya’s political divisions, which have led to the absence of a central government that can enforce state control over Libya’s large desert and mountain territory and guard the country’s borders with six countries.
Uprooting ISIS from Sirte, the heart of Libya’s eastern oil crescent, would give a political boost to Tripoli’s unity government and ease the fears of Western powers about Sirte serving as a fallback for the militants after eventual defeat in the Middle East.
But losing Sirte would also free ISIS from the need to defend territory and force it to turn to irregular attacks. It could also look for a safe haven in the southern Libyan desert. With its stronghold shattered its foreign fighters might return to their home countries, causing more instability among Libya’s neighbours.
With the goal of defending the project of a “caliphate” in North Africa not being an immediate concern, ISIS could link up with other radical organisations.
Defeat in Sirte would not be ISIS’s first loss of territory in Libya. When Libyan jihadists affiliated with al-Battar Brigades returned home after fighting in Syria in 2012 they picked Derna as their stronghold. Assaults by anti-Islamist general Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army, routed the jihadists from Derna with the backing of air strikes from Egypt. The extremists showed their resilience by emerging to snatch control of Sirte from militias allied with the government in Tripoli.
If ISIS fighters become scattered from their current stronghold in Sirte and it becomes increasingly difficult to join the besieged parent organisation in Syria and Iraq, the risks for Libya’s neighbours are likely to increase as militants could shift towards more high-casualty terrorist attacks such as those in Baghdad, Istanbul and a number of European cities.
Tunisia faces the greatest risk as ISIS is dominated by Tunisian recruits who might be tempted to launch cross-border attacks such as that in March when militants left their beleaguered small base in the Libyan town of Sabratha to try to capture the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane.
Unlike ISIS central, the Islamic State in Libya has not been forced to insert itself into ungoverned territories where sectarianism and factionalism dominate political and social life. Chased from territory it held on the northern and more populous coastline, it could redirect more of its efforts southward to control oil and other riches, including water from the Great Man-Made River or gold mines near Niger.
There are also complex, extensive and exploitable grievances across the Sahara and Sahel regions where resentment towards neglectful coastal elites is rife. ISIS could also fan conflicts between tribes in southern Libya. The group’s long-term strategist Abu Bakr Naji has advised in his Management of Savagery that tribes can be tapped as a vehicle for territorial control.
ISIS has forged links with the Qaddafa tribe of deposed dictator Muammar Qaddafi and many former regime officials.
Misratan militias and their allies among Awlad Suleiman tribes in Sebha have fought the Qaddafa and Magarha tribes before and the Misratans’ leading role in uprooting ISIS from Sirte would make them a top target for the militants.
Surviving ISIS fighters could draw strength from other like-minded groups or join them. Libya has many such factions including Ansar al-Sharia Libya, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, which may now operate under the Defence Brigade of Benghazi (DBB).
Other groups are the Derna Revolutionaries Shura Council, the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council, which may now operate under the Operations Room for Ajdabiya Liberation and Support for Benghazi Revolutionaries.