Analysis |

Libya in the Balance: ISIS Metastasizes Into the Maghreb

The challenge now is how to block Islamic State's spread to other parts of Libya and prevent it from expanding into its North African neighbors.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Image from Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos allegedly showing an ISIS parade in Libya's coastal city of Sirte, which lies 500 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, Feb. 18, 2015.
Image from Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos allegedly showing an ISIS parade in Libya's coastal city of Sirte, which lies 500 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, Feb. 18, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The governor of Libya’s Misrata District last week published a document calling on the district’s civilians and its military forces “to be on the highest alert alertness and readiness from now until further notice.” The country’s third-largest city, Misrata, was until recently considered Libya’s safest. Now it fears an invasion from the forces of ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or ISIL) in Libya.

Misrata operates as a city-state, with its own semiautonomous government. Most of its income comes from iron and cement factories, and it is a magnet for foreign investors. As such, Misrata also poses a temptation to ISIS, which seeks to expand its economic base for its operations in the Middle East and, like any economic institution, wants to diversify its sources of revenue.

But as in Syria, it is a challenge to draw the map of control of ISIS and the other Islamic organizations in Libya — with the exception of Darna, Sirte and parts of Benghazi, where ISIS has near-total control.

Two years ago, a coalition of Islamic militias came together in Misrata. Known as Libya Dawn, it supports the large religious organization Ansar al-Shariah, which controls parts of Benghazi. This coalition seeks to engage in battle the forces led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Hifter is one of the main supporters of the internationally recognized interim government, which sits in Tobruk — after being driven out of Tripoli, the capital, by a rival government.

Hifter may be considered a leftover of the erstwhile government of Muammar Gadhafi, but his powerful militia, that includes soldiers and officers from Gadhafi’s army, has made him acceptable to a West that has nearly given up on the Libyan army’s ability to act against the Islamic militias.

Herein lies the dilemma of the leadership in Misrata — whether to choose Hifter for now and support him against ISIS, or to form a coalition with ISIS and lose control of this important province, where mass protests were held this week against the Egyptian air strikes on Libya.

The airstrikes followed the release of an ISIS video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.

This is also the conflict that is dividing Ansar al-Shariah, parts of which recently swore loyalty to ISIS. Late last month, Ansar al-Shariah said that its leader, Mohammad al-Zahawi had been killed. According to reports from Libya, he was executed by ISIS supporters after he refused to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ leader and self-proclaimed caliph. The execution was reportedly carried out by group of Libyans who had fought in Syria on behalf of ISIS and returned to establish the local branch of the organization in Libya.

The war between the numerous militias in the streets of Libya’s main cities and the absence of a unified leadership — the country has two rival governments — presents an impossible challenge to international forces trying to evaluate their options.

In a special session of the UN Security Council on Wednesday that was convened after the Egyptian airstrikes on Darna, which ISIS controls, Egypt proposed the creation of an international military coalition to fight ISIS in Libya as well as the removal of the arms embargo on Libya, in order to let the recognized government acquire the weapons it needs to fight the Islamic State.

But as in Syria, the United States is stuck in a position of waiting, and its policy is that there must be cooperation with UN special representative Bernardino Leon, of Spain, who is attempting to establish a national unity government. In other words, first a political solution for the Libyan government and only afterwards, maybe, weapons too.

The American position has no real support in Libya. The deep conflicts between the two governments and the rivalries between the various armed militias that support one of the governments, in addition to the tribal rivalries, have made a political solution seem far off. Italy, on the other hand, which sees itself as being on the front line against ISIS in Libya, is willing to send 5,000 soldiers to help the Libyan army, on condition of the approval of the United Nations.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, are conducting their own policy vis-a-vis Libya. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who this week visited the air force from which the strike that killed 50 ISIS militants and civilians was launched, is willing to continue to attack in Libya as long as necessary. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry may have denied reports that Egypt sent commando forces into Libya that killed 150 ISIS militants, but Egyptian officials made it clear that if there is a need, “Egypt will not hesitate to act in every way to protect its citizens.”

An estimated two million Egyptians live in Libya, mainly due to the greater work opportunities there. They began trickling back into Egypt this week, with no guarantee of work in their homeland.

In the meantime, the Egyptian airstrikes led to a diplomatic row between Egypt and Qatar, which recalled its ambassador from Cairo after Egypt’s envoy to the Arab League accused Qatar of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs and implied that Qatar supported terrorism. The envoy’s Qatari counterpart only expressed his reservations about the Egyptian operation, saying it constituted interference in Libyan domestic affairs.

It’s not that Qatar really cares about interference in Libya — it is bankrolling several religious militias there — but when Saudi Arabia accusesd Qatar of interfering in the affairs of Arab nations, it caused a break in diplomatic relations among Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The challenge is how to block the spread of ISIS to other parts of Libya and prevent it from expanding into other North African states such as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

According to reports from Tunisia, ISIS activists are already at work there, and Tunisia has “exported” a few hundred militants to Libya, in addition to the 3,000 Tunisians who went to fight in Syria, who plan plan to return home to establish an ISIS bridgehead in Tunisia.

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