Syria has been a deadly quagmire for the last couple of years, but it looks like the Islamic State (ISIS) is already moving out to elsewhere. Late last month, ISIS cadre in Libya briefly spread alarm by occupying the western city of Sabratha. While Libyan security forces eventually managed to turn the militants out, the brief episode was a telling chapter in ISIS’s growing prowess in the lawless North African country.
Sabratha was already home to an ISIS camp established early last year, while the terrorist group set up a de facto capital in Sirte, the hometown of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In the months that passed, ISIS assembled a fighting force of over 5,000 militants in Libya (according to the Pentagon’s latest estimates) and now holds a contiguous territory, also including a stretch of more than 200 km along the Libyan coast.
The strides that ISIS’s Libyan wing has made in recent months are so large, in fact, that Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the US-led bombing coalition in Syria, revealed last week that high-ranking ISIS field commanders have been spotted moving to Libya. Some say that future recruits, particularly from Europe, have also been asked to travel to Libya rather than to Syria.
Some of this change in focus could be driven by the recent defeats that ISIS has faced in Syria and Iraq, due to Russia’s air strikes on behalf of the Assad regime and America’s bombing campaign on strategic targets. Early this year, military officials said that the group has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and a fifth of its holdings in Syria. The US and Iraq are planning further offensives to retake Mosul later this month, after the town was severed from ISIS’s de facto headquarters in Raqqa by successful previous strikes in eastern Syria.
But ISIS’s apparent shift in base to Libya also has a lot to do with the far more fortuitous circumstances in North Africa. There are bounties to be had in Libya, and the ISIS leadership knows it. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves and produced about 1.6 million barrels a day under the rule of Gaddafi in 2011. That figure has since declined to less than a fourth, but is still significantly higher than the 30,000 barrels a day that reports suggest ISIS has produced from its 250 oil fields in Syria.
Politics favors ISIS too. Unlike in Syria, where ISIS is largely surrounded by enemies – the Syrian regime to the west, the Iraqi regime to the east, the Kurds to the north and the Saudis to the south – there are no credible opponent forces on the ground in Libya. In the days that followed the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, lawlessness spread across the country. Today, Libya has two competing governments – one in the western city of Tripoli, supported by Qatar and Turkey, and the other in the eastern town of Tobruk, propped up by the West, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Last week, The Times reported that Italy may even push for a three-way splitting of the state. All this, even as the United Nations struggles to get rivals to agree upon a unity government.
But if Libya is unstable and lawless, its neighborhood doesn’t look much better, meaning that containing ISIS within its current borders will get much harder than it has been in the Middle East. Much of Libya’s borders to the south with countries such as Niger, Chad and Algeria are open and unguarded. In fact, Libya has long played the role of a key link in the long conduit that transports illegal migrants from Africa to Europe, because of its open and unguarded borders since the fall of Gaddafi.
While Libya’s neighbor to the northwest, Tunisia, has managed to build a stable government following the Arab Spring, ISIS militants showed that they had the ability to strike at the heart of even that country. Early last year, ISIS killed 38 tourists in the coastal Tunisian town of Sousse, before launching another foiled bid in the town of El Katr two weeks later.
Egypt seems to be the only credible counter-ISIS force in North Africa, since President el-Sisi tightened his grip over the country. But even Egypt fell victim to ISIS terrorism when militants shot down a Russian plane over the country last year. ISIS cadres continue to hold great influence in the Sinai Peninsula. Last year, the Egyptian military launched a much-touted program to hire recruits for local troops who would fight ISIS. But so far, security sources say, the Egyptians have managed to muster only a paltry fighting force of 35.
The total collapse of the Libyan state has also led to open tribal conflicts, such as the prolonged battle between the Tuareg and Toubou tribes in the south – causing more fertile ground for ISIS recruitment. Kader Abderrahim of the Institute of Strategic and International Relations in Paris said that ISIS has been able to increase the strength of its cadres in Libya, simply by “provoking tensions and making alliances”.
Poverty across North Africa plays into the hands of ISIS too, with no functioning government in place to provide sustenance to young and unemployed men in the region. Last month, Libyan intelligence chiefs said that ISIS had launched a massive recruitment program, promising a pay of up to $1,000, in a region where a few hundred dollars often make up a whole year’s pay. The drive enticed many from Chad, Mali, Sudan and other neighboring countries to travel across the border and join ISIS training camps in Libya.
All of this means that Libya, and North Africa in general, make very propitious breeding grounds for future ISIS activity, even as the world makes gains against it in the Middle East. If ISIS did shift most of its operations to Libya over the coming months, it’ll almost certainly increase the flow of refugees to the European coast, given North Africa’s notorious historical record in creating migrant crises on the other side of the Mediterranean. Right now, it doesn’t look like it’ll suffice to simply bomb ISIS out of Syria.
Mohamed Zeeshan is a policy analyst based in Bangalore, India. He also writes for The Diplomat and The Huffington Post.
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