It’s no secret that ISIS thrives on power vacuums. Its rise from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq was fueled by the chaos created by the actual Syrian civil war and the undeclared civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and the Maliki government. Its expansion abroad has similarly targeted places that are unstable or potentially unstable: Afghanistan, the Russian Caucasus, Yemen, Sinai, and Nigeria (though there it simply acquired the organization that had created the instability, Boko Haram). And Libya, of course, which is as unstable as any country on the planet at the moment and where ISIS appears to be focusing most of its attention outside of the Syria-Iraq core:
Even as foreign powers step up pressure against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the militant group has expanded in Libya and established a new base close to Europe where it can generate oil revenue and plot terror attacks.
Since announcing its presence in February in Sirte, the city on Libya’s Mediterranean coast has become the first that the militant group governs outside of Syria and Iraq. Its presence there has grown over the past year from 200 eager fighters to a roughly 5,000-strong contingent which includes administrators and financiers, according to estimates by Libyan intelligence officials, residents and activists in the area.
The group has exploited the deep divisions in Libya, which has two rival governments, to create this new stronghold of violent religious extremism just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. Along the way, they scored a string of victories—defeating one of the strongest fighting forces in the country and swiftly crushing a local popular revolt.
With Libya’s dueling governments busy fighting each other, nobody has enough interest or strength to divert to a fight against this growing ISIS presence in Sirte. ISIS’s central command has reportedly started sending Libyan fighters in Syria and Iraq back home to Libya, and is now telling potential foreign recruits to go to Sirte rather than to Raqqa.
It all adds up to a scenario where ISIS may be looking to Sirte as its new home if its Syria-Iraq domain should fall. There definitely appears to be a greater degree of direct ISIS control being asserted over Sirte than over those other ISIS “emirates” like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sinai, which presents a serious concern:
“Libya is the affiliate that we’re most worried about,” Patrick Prior, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top counterterrorism analyst, said at a recent security conference in Washington. “It’s the hub from which they project across all of North Africa.”
The leadership of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is now clenching its grip on Surt so tightly that Western intelligence agencies say they fear the core group may be preparing to fall back to Libya as an alternative base if necessary, a haven where its jihadists could continue to fight from even if it was ousted from its original territories.
When it comes to doing something to stop ISIS’s ascent in Libya, the impetus, as it always is, has been for an increase in military activities, like the US airstrike a couple of weeks ago that allegedly killed ISIS’s “leader in Libya,” a man named Abu Nabil. But that kind of thing is a band-aid at best and purely cosmetic at worst. As in Syria and Iraq, the only way to root ISIS out of Libya is to remove the situation that allows it to exist there in the first place, the civil war. On that front, the UN’s new Libyan envoy, German diplomat Martin Kobler, is reportedly preparing to restart talks with both sides. However, the UN’s credibility is now at a low, thanks to reports that its former Libyan envoy, Spanish diplomat Bernardino Léon, was negotiating a sweet $50K/month gig working for the UAE government at the same time that the UAE was violating UN resolutions by shipping arms to factions inside Libya. Apparently some people consider that kind of thing a “massive conflict of interest” or whatever. Hopefully Kobler will be able to make some progress anyway.
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