ISIS’s Libyan Expansion
By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Friday, January 29th, 2016 @ 9:52PM
Left: Locations of ISIS presence and control in Libya. It has territorial control over the square outlined in black. Outlined in red are large cities where ISIS is present but not in control, while Misrata and Ajdabiya are on its agenda (Google Maps)
ISIS control of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline allows it not only to ship its operatives, together with Muslim refugees to Europe. ISIS expansion along the Mediterranean Seaboard of North Africa poses a growing threat to commercial shipping, cruise liners, and also oil rigging platforms offshore.
ISIS is not reported to have a navy, yet. But it does not need a large force with which to paralyze commercial shipping in the Mediterranean, or to cause tremendous ecological and environmental damage.
Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, the UK’s highest naval officer in Nato, warned today that the ISIS jihadists are likely to use “a ‘very high-quality weapons system … quite capable Korean, Chinese and Russian hardware, to attack ships. This, he said, would have “extraordinary implications’ for the Western World.”
ISIS presence in Libya’s coastal area is not new. Nor is its growing threat to commercial navigation in the Mediterranean Seaboard of North Africa.
Last February, Seth Cropsey, a former Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy, warned in the Wall Street Journal; “ISIS’s prospects for significant naval power are remote. But small boats, fishing vessels, smugglers, and merchant craft that carry concealed weapons could hijack, sink, or rake commercial shipping, including cruise liners in the central Mediterranean.”
It is only now that the Obama administration has declared “Action in Libya is needed before Libya becomes a sanctuary for ISIS…[because] We don’t want a situation like in Iraq or Syria.” However, the steps offered by the administration are not encouraging.
According to the White House, “The president directed his national security team to continue efforts to strengthen governance and support ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Libya and other countries where ISIL has sought to establish a presence,”
It seems that Obama is not in a hurry to defeat ISIS, or stop its spread. Instead, he is said to be seeking, as always, “a political solution to get a military solution,” an unlikely outcome in Libya in the foreseeable future.
Obama is busy crossing off issues on his presidential legacy’s bucket list. He has no time to be bogged down by the “JV Team” aka ISIS. He hopes to be out of office when, not if, ISIS attacks a cruise liner or container ship. The disastrous security and economic situation will be the newly elected U.S, president’s problem
Following is ITIC‘s brief review of ISIS’s rise in Libya:
“Like Iraq and Syria, Libya is a country that has disintegrated and is involved in an ongoing civil war that is likely to continue for a long time. That is the result of the deep divisions between the various centers of power and the access of the rival sides to military and economic assets like oil fields, the refugee-smuggling industry and large stockpiles of weapons and ammunition from the Qaddafi era (some of which are of high quality and are smuggled from Libya to its Arab and African neighbors). It is still difficult to assess ISIS’s ability to realize its far-reaching aspirations in Libya, but it has clearly established a stronghold it will not easily give up, in view of Libya’s perceived importance.
The establishment of ISIS (and other jihadist organizations) in Libya has the potential for many intra-Libyan, regional and international threats:
- Inside Libya ISIS is one of several organizations struggling for power and control. The establishment of ISIS in Libya increases the chaos and anarchy already plaguing the country, making it difficult to stabilize a central government (for various reasons not only connected to ISIS). Thus despite the efforts of the Tripoli and Tobruk governments to reach an agreement, in all probability in the coming years de facto Libya will be divided and suffer from war and turmoil, creating a governmental and security vacuum, and making it easy for ISIS to continue consolidating its power and making it difficult to uproot it.
- ISIS is liable to increase its ties to the jihadist organizations in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, exporting subversion and terrorism:
- Tunisia is currently in ISIS’s crosshairs, but in the future ISIS may increase its support for jihadist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa(including Niger, Chad, Mali and Sudan). In West Africa ISIS has close ties with Nigeria’s jihadist Boko Haram, which has sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- ISIS in Libya’s ties to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, ISIS’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula, are also likely to become stronger. ISIS may also smuggle more weapons from Libya to the Sinai Peninsula (weapons which may also find their way to the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip). Libya has a wide-open border of 1,115 kilometers (almost 700 miles) with Egypt, through which operatives are infiltrated and weapons smuggled into Egypt by various organizations and criminal gangs, including ISIS. The Egyptian police consider ISIS’s establishment in Libya, and especially in the eastern part of the country, as a threat to Egypt’s national security, although so far no effective measures have been taken to keep ISIS from gaining strength in Libya.
- The threat to Italy and the rest of Europe:
- Libya’s proximity to Italy makes ISIS’s presence there potentially dangerous not only to Italy but to all of Europe (the distance between Sirte and Sicily is 696 kilometers, about 432 miles). Their closeness may encourage ISIS to send terrorist operatives to Italy and other European countries once it has established itself in Sirte and other locations. ISIS, through its affiliated social networks, has already threatened Italy, and may turn verbal threats into action. After the terrorist attack in Paris, ISIS posted a video entitled “Paris before Rome,” sending the message that Italy’s turn would come after Paris. It is also possible that ISIS’s interest is not influenced only by Rome’s geographical proximity and its position as the center of the Christian world, but also by the legacy of Italy’s 23-year occupation of Libya.
- Libya is a point of exit for work-seeking emigrants and asylum-seekers swarming to Italy by sea from Libya, and African and Arab countries. ISIS establishment in Libya has been accompanied by its cruel treatment of local populations, which may increase the flow of asylum-seekers from Libya. ISIS may use them as cover for infiltrating terrorist operatives into Italy or exploit them for financial gain.
- Turning a profit from Libya’s oil and gas industry: ISIS is liable to take control of Libya’s oil and gas industry or to damage or threaten it from its power base in Sirte. Its objective will either be to profit from selling oil to Western countries (still a viable business, but with a much smaller turnover than before Qaddafi was toppled) or at least to keep the oil profits from its enemies. In 2015 ISIS attacked the oil and gas industry in southern Libya a number of times, so far without significant success. At the beginning of 2016 ISIS attacked the important oil terminal at Sidr after it had taken control of the nearby town of Bin Jawad. ISIS can be expectedto increase its effortsto create sources of income which will upgrade its military and governmental capabilities,as it has done in Iraq and Syria.
Alongside the threats ISIS in Libya poses, it also has a considerable number of vulnerabilities which can be exploited by any future campaign against it: its order of battle is limited to a few thousand operatives forced to fight armies, militias and hostile organizations (including organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda) more powerful than ISIS; there are organizations and tribes supporting ISIS in an ad hoc coalition, and when their interests shift they may abandon it for new allies; between ISIS’s control of Sirte and other areas of its activities there is no territorial continuum, making it difficult to move forces from one sector to another. So far, as opposed to Iraq and Syria, ISIS has not yet taken control of oil fields and turned them into sources of profit. In addition, every country bordering Libya is hostile to ISIS and it is reasonable to assume they will collaborate with any coalition whose objective is to expel ISIS from Libya.
However, no such international or pan-Arab coalition exists as yet. In countries like the United States, France, and those bordering Libya like Egypt and Tunisia, there is a growing awareness of the threats inherent in an ISIS stronghold in Libya. However, while the strategy the United States has implemented against ISIS since September 2014 professes to provide a comprehensive response to the challenge posed by ISIS, in reality it does not, because it focuses on Iraq and Syria. Therefore, it does not provide a response to ISIS’s spread to other countries, especially Libya and Egypt, and to the local and regional threats inherent therein. To deal with the overall threats of ISIS’s entrenchment in Libya, the United States and its European and Arab allies will have to change their concept of the anti-ISIS campaign. Their strategy should be extended to Libya and the other countries where ISIS is trying to establish itself, which would make it more comprehensive.”
* For a detailed overview of ISIS’s presence in Libya, see ITIC
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