TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State in Libya
February 6, 2015

The Islamic State in Libya

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The Islamic State has been moving aggressively to exploit the chaos of Libya since last summer, with profound risks for the Mediterranean region and beyond

• Libya is a perfect breeding ground for an expanded Islamic State, with large amounts of heavy weaponry, systemic lawlessness, a divided population, and sustained armed conflict

• The group has formed three active and capable groups in Libya—in Tripoli, Fezzan, and Barqa—all of which have conducted deadly attacks in recent months

• The phenomenon of Islamic State affiliates—beginning in the summer of 2014, before which the group was entirely focused on Iraq and Syria—is actually in the tradition of its arch-rival al-Qaeda

• The presence and power of the Islamic State in Libya will likely increase as conditions in Syria and Iraq deteriorate for the group, and conditions in Libya continue to worsen.

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The last thing Libya needed was the emergence of the Islamic State among the already crowded field of armed groups tearing the country into pieces. Yet it is this combination of chaos and heavy weaponry that made inevitable the group’s presence in Libya. The group is now functioning in three self-declared zones, and has aims on seizing more territory, riches, and personnel.

Last week’s attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which killed ten people, was conducted by the group’s “Tripoli State” (Waliyat Tarablus). No one has claimed responsibility for this week’s deadly attack on a shuttered oil installation in central Libya, which resulted in the deaths of 10 workers and the kidnapping of seven others, though the commander of the local guards said it was “Islamic State people.” Attacks on oil facilities have been a common occurrence by many of the seemingly countless rival armed gangs, so it’s unknown if this attack was indeed the responsibility of the Islamic State. If it were, the site of the attack would fall under the Waliyat Tripoli’s area of responsibility. The Waliyat Fezzan operates in southern-central Libya, while the Waliyat Barqa operates in the east and southeastern part of the country, to include Benghazi and Derna. It was in the eastern city of Derna last summer that the Islamic State made its first foothold into the country. Since then, the group has claimed responsibility for dozens of serious attacks across the country, including the January kidnapping of 21 Coptic Christians from the central city of Sitre (150km north of this week’s attack on the al-Mabruk oil field).

The expansion of the Islamic State into Libya is no accident. The group is keen to exploit the fertile ground that is Libya’s current fractured and violent state. The group is trying to co-opt other fighting groups such as Ansar al-Sharia (the group responsible for the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, and whose leader, Muhammad al-Zahawi, was killed last month). This long-practiced tactic allows the group to accelerate its growth, which is already impressive given the group’s notoriety and publicity, as well as increase its supply of heavy weapons.

The establishment of “Waliyats,” or states/affiliates outside of Syria and Iraq, is relatively new for the group that now calls itself the Islamic State. Since its inception in 2003, the group focused first on Iraq, and then on Syria and Iraq. Setting up franchises is actually a hallmark of the group’s arch extremist rival, al-Qaeda. It is interesting that as meaningful military pressure has been applied to the group (in terms of airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq, and some ground assaults in northern Iraq), and as operating in its self-proclaimed homeland has become more difficult, the group has increasingly looked to external outlets. The group would argue that its expansion is a sign of its vitality, while it is actually a sign of internal pressures and the easier opportunities waiting in chaotic places like Libya, Egypt’s Sinai, and Afghanistan.

It bears watching how the Libyan group operates in the months ahead. Fighters from North Africa make up a sizable portion of the Islamic State’s foreign fighter cadre, and they are well regarded in the group for their loyalty and ferocity. The new groups in Libya will have no shortage of motivated fighters, both among the local population and among returning fighters—of which there has been reporting about their leaving Syria. There is also no shortage of weapons to use against rival groups it is unable to co-opt. Foreign fighters from other parts of the world will likely continue to attempt travel to Syria, as it’s the seat of the Caliphate, while the Libyan fight is more provincial. Travel into Libya is more difficult for the uninitiated than into Turkey or Syria, even if it is under less observation from foreign governments seeking to stem the flow of would-be fighters.

The risks of an assertive Islamic State in Libya affiliate are real, and involve the entire Mediterranean region and beyond. Given the immense challenges facing Libya and the potential rewards for the Islamic State if it can establish itself throughout the fractured country, the group poses the most serious threat by any Islamic State affiliate. As the international community focuses on the threats the group poses in Syria and Iraq, it will need to counter the rising threat of the group—and of the many other violent groups— in Libya as well.

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