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TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Expansion Strategy in Libya
March 3, 2016

The Islamic State’s Expansion Strategy in Libya

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• On March 1, the UK announced that it will send a contingent of soldiers to help Tunisia secure its border with Libya

• The announcement comes a week after reports that French special forces are operating against the Islamic State in Libya

• International concern is growing about the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, and the group’s potential to expand beyond Libya’s porous borders

• In Libya, the Islamic State is geographically contained by an ocean to the north and a desert to the south; nevertheless, it has so far resisted containment and faces few obstacles to its continued spread

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Even as the so-called Islamic State faces increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State in Libya continues to expand. The vast territory of Libya, its large stores of weapons, and the absence of coherent government have enabled the Islamic State to move relatively freely around the country. This mobility has allowed the group to maintain a presence in both the east and the west of the country, and increasingly in the south. On March 1, in response to increased Islamic State activity, the UK government announced that it would be sending a small contingent of British troops to help Tunisia to secure its border with Libya. The Tunisian government has grown increasingly concerned over the threat posed by the Islamic State in Libya, and recently constructed a 125-mile border wall—complete with a moat—along the border with its war-torn neighbor. Despite the security wall, a small group of armed militants from Libya was able to cross into Tunisia on March 2, before being killed by Tunisian forces outside the city of Ben Gardane.

Other international actors have also stepped up their attempts to contain the spread of the group in Libya. French newspaper Le Monde reported last week that French Special Forces are operating against the Islamic State in Libya, and have reportedly launched ‘targeted strikes’ against senior members of the group. It is becoming increasingly apparent to international security officials that the Islamic State franchise in Libya is not merely an affiliate group—it was consciously constructed by senior Islamic State leadership in Raqqa. The Islamic State initially appeared in Libya when members of the Battar Brigade—an all-Libyan unit of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—returned to Libya and declared a wilayah in the eastern city of Derna in the spring of 2014. Islamic State leadership has subsequently dispatched senior members—including Abu Nabil al-Anbari, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in November 2015—to head the Libyan franchise. 

Like its parent organization in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State in Libya is expansionist and opportunistic. The central coastal city of Sirte—seized primarily through the coopting of members of the Qadhafa tribe of former President Qadhafi—has served as the group’s Libyan capital since May of 2015. To ensure its economic sustainability, the Islamic State has attempted to capture energy infrastructure in the east, launching assaults on the oil and gas port at Ras Lanuf. The group has also spread south and west into the remote desert regions to secure access to lucrative smuggling routes running through the vast Sahara desert. In order to grow its ranks, the Islamic State has drawn fighters away from other extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, and has even begun to encourage foreign recruits to travel to Libya, rather than to Iraq and Syria. 

This is particularly concerning for Tunisia, which has seen at least 6,000 of its citizens travel to fight in Iraq and Syria, and experienced two terror attacks carried out by Tunisians trained in Islamic State camps in Libya—spurring the construction of the border wall and the deployment of the British soldiers. Even if Tunisia—which has a roughly 285-mile border with Libya—is able to stem the flow of weapons and fighters to and from Libya, this task is far more difficult for Algeria and Egypt, whose borders with Libya run for approximately 615 and 692 miles, respectively. It is an even more demanding task for Libya’s southern neighbors Chad and Niger—two of the poorest countries in the world—both of which already struggle with Islamist militancy within their borders. 

Given recent indications, the international anti-Islamic State coalition will likely increase its role in combating the group in Libya. However, as in Iraq and Syria, periodic airstrikes will not succeed is dislodging the Islamic State from its strongholds, particularly in Sirte. Without effective and reliable partners on the ground, the Islamic State will simply weather the storm as it has in Iraq and Syria. While airstrikes against the Islamic State will be easier if the group is driven away from the populated areas along the coast, such a dispersal runs the risk of pushing the group into the desert regions of Algeria, Chad, Niger, Egypt, and Mali—bringing with it fighters, weapons, and poisonous ideology. As the rapid global spread of the Islamic State has shown, until the ideological appeal of the group can be effectively combated, limited military solutions can only accomplish so much. 

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