ISIS in Libya: A New Third Force

In the chaos of the Libya conflict, jihadi groups have emerged as a potent third force, determined to derail any meaningful negotiation process between the two major blocs, writes Jason Pack. 

Despite increased regional intervention in Libya, both at the political and military levels, the stalemate between the ‘Islamist-aligned’ Libya Dawn and ‘anti-Islamist’ Operation Dignity has become protracted. Clinging to hopes of final victory, neither side has proved willing to make significant compromises to either end the fighting or facilitate progress in the UN mediated peace talks. In this climate of stalemate and looming state collapse, a truly independent third force has now emerged on the Libyan stage: the jihadis.

Although dispersed throughout the country, the jihadis have successfully established various bases where they are free to train, store arms, and base their forces.  As Libyans with experience in the Afghani and Iraqi jihads participated in the 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprisings and formed their own battalions, they were able to use their connections to and networks within the nascent Libyan security services to carve out zones of the country in which they could operate, as well as move arms and recruits undisturbed.

Furthermore, jihadi groups took advantage of growing lawlessness and proliferated in all those areas where the Libyan state could not assert its control and the security services never returned after the end of the 2011 war. As a result, for example, Derna has since 2012 been beyond the control of the Libyan government and has been divided up into small jihadi fiefdoms. Similarly, certain neighborhoods of Tripoli, such as Suq al-Juma, and of Benghazi, such as al-Laithi, have also been under the control of jihadi militias since shortly after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. To be sure, the areas where the jihadist groups chose to put down roots were regions and cities with a significant history of religious inspired mobilization and resistance.

A watershed moment came in September 2012 in Benghazi, with the murder of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens by Ansar al-Sharia militants with ties to al-Qaeda. Following that episode, and capitalizing on both the withdrawal of international actors and on the Libyan government’s inability to mount a coherent response, Ansar al-Sharia came to dominate not only various Benghazi neighborhoods but also Libyan jihadism. Loosely affiliated groups claiming to be franchises of Ansar al-Sharia appeared throughout the country, transforming their fiefdoms into hotbeds of jihadi militancy. This trend strengthened as the Libyan state became weaker and weaker from 2013 onward, increasing the areas under the control of jihadi groups. Unsurprisingly, a primary objective of these groups has been to keep the Libyan state so weak that it is unable to intervene in their fiefdoms.

As of late February 2015, jihadi forces were in full control of Derna and Sirte as well as several neighborhoods in Benghazi, Sabrata and Tripoli. They also have operational bases in the Salvador triangle (Libya’s southwestern border region), and parts of the country’s southeast desert, which allows them to smuggle arms and militants to neighboring countries. Some Western experts have asserted that training camps in the Salvador triangle have become the epicentre for the dissemination of takfiri-jihadism throughout the entire Maghreb and Sahel regions. Several reports suggest for example that the commando unit headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which raided the In Amenas gas facility in 2013, used Libyan territory as its initial gathering and then escape point. This trend has spurred France to beef up its military presence in northern Niger and to repeatedly threaten a more active regional role so as to avoid the repetition of a crisis similar to that which almost led to the implosion of Mali in 2012.

Although ISIS lacked an official presence in Libya prior to the summer of 2014, it has succeeded at ideologically attracting groups previously aligned with Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda to swear allegiance to it. This has been the result of the evolving theological and military battles between Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of the Islamic State.  Over the past two years, all jihadist movements throughout the world have been forced to react to the growing schism between ‘traditional’ jihadism, as embodied by Al-Qaeda central and some of its regional branches, and the more radical forms of takfiri-jihadism embodied by ISIS. However, while the initial February 2014 split between the ranks of jihadis in the Levant did not significantly alter the worldwide landscape of allegiances, ISIS’ sudden expansion in Iraq and Syria over the summer of 2014 caused a chain reaction of allegiance switching in favor of ISIS. This stampede to gain protection and glory under the ISIS umbrella has granted locally focused jihadi groups based in remote areas throughout the MENA region, like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai peninsula and other jihadi militias in places like Derna, access to worldwide networks and know how.  This trend was equally beneficial to ISIS, the capacity of which to hold large swaths of territory across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Sinai now represents an integral part of its bid for legitimacy and underpins its claim to have re-established the Caliphate to which all jihadi groups should now pledge their alliance.

ISIS’s ability to expand beyond the Syrian/Iraqi stage was well demonstrated when, in the summer of 2014, several leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) announced their support for the theological positions of ISIS as opposed to those of Ayman al-Zawahiri, thus establishing the splinter ‘Jund al-Khilafah’ (Troops of the Caliphate) group.  This move, which caused a schism in AQIM itself, paralleled the earlier split seen in the Levant between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Therefore, ISIS in Libya is not the product of the dispatch of foreign fighters to the country (although there are some, in addition to Libyan jihadis returning fron the Levant) but rather a question of the rebranding of various Libyan groups with whom the ISIS core message and ideology already resonated. Furthermore, as most Libyan militias, both Islamist and non-Islamist, seek to keep any nascent Libyan government out of their patch of territory, the ISIS message of governing sub-state regions is deeply appealing to them.

This trend began in Derna when, from the autumn of 2014, rival extremist groups controlling different areas of the town began announcing their allegiance to ISIS. The Shura Council of the Islamic Youth of Derna was first to declare its allegiance, hoping to gain support against its local rival group the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, which was in control of other parts of the town and was reportedly playing a leading role among local jihadi groups. The Islamic Youth strategy was a partial success, as the ‘Caliph’ of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dispatched Abu Nabil al-Anbari to be the emir (commander) of the ‘Cyrenaica Province of the Islamic State’.

Although this emir does not possess executive authority over all of the ISIS-aligned groups in Libya, he is presumably able to strengthen the Shura Council of the Islamic Youth of Derna against its rivals via injections of arms, trained fighters, and media know how. Derna also represents a very valuable ‘investment’ opportunity for ISIS due to its strategic location on the shores of the Mediterranean. Its maritime port infrastructure means it could be used as a logistical hub for trafficking troops, weapons and other resources between different jihadi fronts, at least until Operation Dignity started to actively enforce an aerial blockade on this and other Libyan ports reportedly used by jihadi groups to manage their supply-lines.

The pattern of pre-existing jihadi groups declaring themselves branches of ISIS was later emulated in Sirte and Tripoli where groups previously aligned with Ansar al-Sharia switched their allegiance. This trend was consolidated as ISIS reportedly dispatched one of its top clerics, the Bahraini Turki al-Binali, to preach in Libya to win adherents. This does not mean that these pre-existing jihadi militias decided to take orders from Baghdadi, but it has coincided with a willingness to consolidate their media profiles and to modify their tactics and pronouncements in line with the ISIS’ understandings of jihadi ‘best practices’. According to Aaron Zelin, founder of and Sami David Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College, London, “as groups have announced their affiliation with ISIS throughout Libya, the Islamic State has asserted complete media command and control over its ‘provinces’ in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. The biggest question now is how much the al-Qaeda aligned Ansar al-Sharia will bleed defectors to the Islamic State and its affiliated militias”. Extrapolating from how Jabhat al-Nusra gradually lost recruits and commanders to ISIS in Syria, ISIS-ification of the jihadi scene in Libya appears inevitable unless something is done to halt it.  As Alison Pargeter, a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI notes, “Adopting the Islamic State mantle is currently the best way for what are still relatively small and contained militant groups in Libya to inflate their importance and to spread fear in the hearts of their opponents.”

At present, although the rivalries between the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade in Derna and ISIS-aligned factions like the Youth Shura Council remain strong (as exemplified in the bombing of the ISIS-controlled Hisba building in Derna by Abu Salim on 24 February), groups like Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and ISIS in Sirte and Tripoli appear to be focusing on their shared goals of derailing a negotiated settlement and launching counterattacks against Egyptian incursions.

A primary aim of these jihadi groups is to prevent the emergence of a Libyan authority or state, which can effectively govern territory and disrupt the smuggling and pseudo-governance networks that they have established. Hence, in response to developments in either the UN negotiations or attacks from Egypt on Libya Dawn positions, the jihadis have launched terror attacks to prevent the formation of a united front against them. This strategy has succeeded as Libya Dawn elements remain more concerned with decrying increasing Egyptian military involvement in Libya than with the growth of jihadi networks. Libya Dawn hesitancy to break its ties to jihadi movements in Libya has in turn increased resentment and suspicion among various constituencies aligned with the Operation Dignity bloc, which have suffered from terror attacks and targeted killings campaigns since the end of the 2011 war.

Both the jihadis and their propagandists acknowledge that Libya is the key to the further spread of takfiri-jihadism throughout the Maghreb and Sahel regions. The detrimental effects of a prolonged jihadi encroachment throughout Libya would be felt across several countries in North Africa, especially Tunisia and Algeria, where various jihadi formations have already established hotbeds of armed contention, as well as in the Sahel, where militants have taken advantage of porous borders and limited state capabilities to set up roots in Mali and Niger.

This background makes clear that the jihadis constitute a third bloc in Libya’s civil war, the primary aim of which is to frustrate any compromise solution to the conflict and to provoke outside (either Egyptian or Western) intervention which they can then use as a rallying cry for recruitment and the launching of further attacks. The longer the chaos in Libya prevails the more arms and money will flow into ISIS coffers and the more difficult it will become to dislodge these pseudo-state groups from the Libyan body politic on which they act as parasites.

This is an excerpt from Jason’s Pack updated Libya Situation Report, written for Religion & Geopolitics.