ISIS’ move into Libya could Signal a Point of No Return

With ISIS expansion official in Libya, there is little doubt that the prospects for the group’s long-term viability have increased. Capitalizing yet again on civil strife and warring factions, ISIS is poised to become the biggest impediment to Libyan national unity.

By: Matthew Kriner

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has now expanded to Libya and by all accounts, it’s there to stay. ISIS’ appearance as a viable contender within the Libyan civil war should come as no surprise, but it should serve as an alarming development in the group’s capabilities. Embroiled in a civil war that has two governments claiming dominance, and a multitude of militias vying for supremacy on the battlefield, Libya is fertile ground for ISIS’ seeds of discord and violence, which, given the levels of fighters returning from the fronts in Syria and Iraq, are likely to amplify the conflict.

According to the Soufan Group (a strategic consulting group led by former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan), of the ten non-contiguous territories claimed by ISIS three of them, Tarabulus, Fezzan, and Barqa, are based on the historical provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyranaci in Libya. ISIS currently only controls small areas within Libya, however a non-contiguous territory successfully held and expanded in Libya would be significant. The city of Derna, 289 km from Benghazi and 172 km from Tobruk, and located in the Barqa province is fully under the control of Ansar al-Sharia, which pledged its allegiance (bayat) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi this past April. Long a contributor of radicals to foreign battlefields, Derna reportedly contributed more foreign fighters to ISIS’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), than any other city in the Middle East. Derna’s significant contributions to AQI and now ISIS have given it a stronger foothold within Libya, expanding the administrative control of al- Baghdadi’s caliphate outside of Syria and Iraq for the first time.

The consolidation of Derna and Sirte exposes the strategy that ISIS is seeking with regard to Libya and its non-contiguous territorial claims— expand, consolidate and create a fault-tolerant presence. ISIS has also established a coastal presence in eastern Libya (in the claimed province of Tarabulus) that threatens Tripoli, the former capital and seat of the Tobruk rival Islamist Libya Dawn Coalition government. This encroaching presence will no doubt provide ISIS a much-needed level of appeal amongst the various local Islamist factions. As the many rival factions in Libya seek to consolidate a victory over the others, ISIS could make inroads into co-opting beleaguered and jaded Islamist factions predisposed toward their extremist ideology. The bottom line is that ISIS’s presence in Libya has the potential to make an already drawn-out civil war intractable and interminable.

ISIS’ strategy of splitting the field of adversaries into internecine conflicts assures a fault-tolerant presence as it complicates adequate and effective military responses to contain its unexpected military gains. ISIS’ first fault-tolerant presence was its foothold in Syria where it successfully built on captured territory in the turmoil of the Syrian civil war and split the field by arbitrarily attacking both rebels and the Assad regime. In Iraq, playing off the sectarian fears of Baghdad’s Tehran and Shia militia partnership, as well as former Prime Minister Maliki’s marginalization of Sunnis, ISIS was able to capitalize on vacillating Sunni tribal action as the U.S. hoped to rekindle the magic of the Anbar Awakening. Now, in Libya, ISIS is using the same approach to split the field between warring factions and regional benefactors to the competing blocs.

The significance of a pseudo forward operating base for ISIS in Libya is that it exposes the soft underbelly of Europe to the classic threat of a terrorist organization — fear. With migrants attempting harrowing seas to reach the safety of Europe’s southern shores, it is inevitable that an increase of ISIS’s attacks will push ever more innocents into the Mediterranean’s temperamental waters. As southern European nations call for a stronger refugee dispersion policy from the EU concerns that ISIS intends to plant refugee moles among those taking to the seas has heightened fears of the organization’s ability to launch attacks within Europe.

ISIS’ spread is rapidly outpacing American-led containment tactics already employed in Iraq and Syria, adding to the baseline fear of the organization’s encroachment. The use of exceptionally sleek videography in broadcasting the graphic executions of Egyptian Coptic Christians along the Libyan coast serves as both a taunt to Egypt and a means to co-opt al Qaeda affiliates operating in Libya. By elevating the level of violence in Libya through its beheading of Egyptian Copts, ISIS challenged Egypt’s (particularly el-Sisi’s) capability of protecting Egyptian citizens, guaranteeing that el-Sisi would seek a forceful response. Indeed, el-Sisi immediately appealed to the UN to directly intervene in Libya, but to no avail.

With U.S. efforts on the ground virtually non-existent in Libya following the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, southern European nations are endorsing Egyptian military involvement in Libya consisting of aerial sorties and arming factions on the ground. Despite recent resumption of UN facilitated reconciliation talks between the governments, the Libyan civil war has become a regional proxy war that promises a glut of bounty (i.e., weaponry and oil infrastructure) for an expansionist and hybrid organization like ISIS. As Egypt and its Arab partners increase their support for the Tobruk based Council of Deputies, this non-contiguous fault-tolerant presence will further divide the regional Arab coalition’s will to launch a coordinated effort aimed at removing ISIS from its heartland in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, the strategy of using sensational terrorism to goad Egypt into a ground war would no doubt provide ISIS a much needed level of legitimacy in Libyan tribal politics and set the ground for acceptance of Abu Bakr’s ideological calls to defend the caliphate’s territorial expansion. Holding territory is an essential aspect to ISIS’ fault-tolerant grand strategy. As predicated on a tenant within their ideology, that a caliphate must have tangible territory from which to govern, if they do not hold territory, they cannot be legitimate. Holding onto gains of territorial control within Libya creates the fault-tolerant presence needed for ISIS to withstand an unlikely eradication in its Mesopotamian heartland. With growing Arab consensus on combating the spread of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and now Yemen, the Libyan presence becomes ever more integral to the group’s propaganda and long term survival.

Building off the Arab Spring’s concomitantly unprecedented successes and dismal outcomes, ISIS has carved a foothold in the minds of the downtrodden and war weary in the Middle East and North Africa region. It has shown its adroitness at competing in convoluted tribal political systems where multiple actors vie for the role of representing the marginalized playing regional and tribal politics as well as any Arab political party or dictator. Perhaps this adroitness is because the brutality they employ stifles challenges to their dominance, or perhaps it’s their unrelenting narrative slowly winning over those jaded enough to give the winning horse a chance. Likely it’s a mixture of both, with the allure of promised stability and inclusion outweighing the reality that denying the extension of ISIS rule would result in death or slavery. As in Iraq and Syria, with each move and counter move in Libya, ISIS seems to outsmart and outgain its rivals. The insertion of ISIS into the equation of the Libyan civil war seems to only derail any potential negotiated settlement to the violence between the two governments claiming authority over the nation. ISIS will seek to exploit every diplomatic and political wrinkle with violence in order to push its own legitimacy on the populace as the only real option. ISIS’ presence will rend Libya further apart and will only compound diplomatic unification efforts aimed at ending the current factional splits and the entrenchment of regional players within their blocs of choice.


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