Home Islamic State in Libya: Will Sirte be the New Raqqa?

Islamic State in Libya: Will Sirte be the New Raqqa?

Libya has emerged as the new frontier for terrorist networks to consolidate their presence, train fighters and launch attacks. Libya’s transition from an authoritarian state under dictator Col Muammar Qaddafi to a functioning democracy has been an abject failure. There are two rival governments vying for power and influence in the country: the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) in the eastern city of Tobruk and Islamist leaning General National Congress(GNC) in Tripoli, each backed by allied armed militias and tribes. International efforts to aid the formation of a national unity government have failed. The United Nations(UN) has tried to broker an agreement and reconcile Libya’s competing governments to form a national unity governmentbut the respective parliaments have overwhelmingly rejected the deal. The state is deeply fractured with no central authority and a violent civil war which has already internally displaced 4,34,000 people as of July 2015.The civil war in the country post the NATO-led ouster of Qaddafi has created a power vacuum and violent extremist groups and militias have taken advantage of this instability to gain influence and leverage. The political crisis and ungoverned spaces have led to proliferation of terrorist networks and armed militias controlling significant territory in the oil rich country.

The Islamic State (IS) is slowly expanding its presence in Libya.It has announced the formation of three wilayats (provinces) in Libya: Tarablus in the west, Barqah in the east and Fezzan in the south. It has exploited the chaos between the warring political factions and numerous armed groups competing for power post-2011. It has already taken control of Sirte, a costal port cityand several towns along 150 miles of coastline bordering the city. The group also maintains presence in Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Derna.The estimated number of fighters in its ranks in the country has almost doubled in the last year to 5000-6000 and the group has urged fighters across the North African and Sahel region to travel to Libya. Fighters from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Nigeria have travelled to Libya instead of its core territory in Syria and Iraq.

The terrorist group is entrenching itself in Sirte and Derna and planning major offensives in the eastern parts in order to expand territory under its control. The country has strategic assets that the militant group is targeting to bankroll its operations.Libya has ninth largest oil reserves in the world. Oil accounts for 95 % of its exports and 75 % of government receipts. US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of a recent conference of anti-ISIL coalition underlined the threat of the IS establishing a base in the North African country. He said “The last thing in the world you’d want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars in oil revenue.”[1] In recent months, it has targeted oil refineries, storage facilities and infrastructure, particularlyin EsSidra and RasLanuf[2], which are key export terminals. The violence has led to a slump in production of oil from 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) to 4,00,000bpd.The Islamic state’s strategy of financing operations throughrevenues from oil sales is well documented as it was able to seize strategic oil assets in Syria and Iraq. Oil represents a key source of revenues for the group. The group till recently was making $ 1-2 million a day from sale of illicit oil in Syria and Iraq.

Islamic State is attempting to reverse some of the strategic losses on battlefield in its core territory of Iraq and Syria. Military conquests on the battlefield are crucial to maintain its narrative of ‘Remaining and Expanding’ and for recruitment and morale of fighters. In the last year, the Islamic State has lost 40% of its territory in Iraq and 20% territory in Syria. The Iraqi security forces assisted by airstrikes by US were able to successfully recapture Ramadi, capital of Anbar province from the terrorist group, delivering a major blow. This came on the back of another important victory for the anti-ISIL coalition in Sinjar. It also lost considerable territory in Tikrit, Tel Abyad and Kobani. The group is also under financial strain as there are reports of salaries being slashed for fighters and more coercive taxation for civilians in its territory.[3]Operation Tidal Wave II has cut off its supply routes and restricted its ability to move weapons, oil and fighters across the border. The targeting of oil pipelines and infrastructure has severely restricted the ability of ISIL to continue to finance its activities.

With no legitimate government in place and armed militias fighting violent jihadist extremists for spoils, the conditions are rife for IS to exploit the instability and entrench itself. The group has focused on state building and governance in Sirtesolidifying its hold over the city and using it as a base for expansion. In Sirte, the group has launched a propaganda campaign and enforced its strict interpretation of sharia. Its activities include distributing literature, conducting outreach forums and implementing harsh punishments (amputation, stoning, and execution) for acts it deems unislamic.[4]The group has also partaken in public works projects such as road cleaning drives, charity donations and civil infrastructure development.

Libya may become the fall back option for the group if it continues to be pushed back in Iraq and Syria. Outside Syria and Iraq, Libya represents the most valuable strategic position for the group since it provides access to ports, large stockpiles of weapons and lucrative smuggling routes in the south[5]. With its porous borders, the group poses a serious security concern for neighbouring nations. Due to its proximity to Southern Europe, there is a threat of IS plotting another Paris-style attack in Europe. It may also exploit the human smuggling networks along the Mediterranean to orchestrate attacks against the west.

Western nations including Britain, Italy, France and the US are contemplating another military intervention to stop Libya from becoming a safe haven for the Islamic State.[6] However the political impasse, power struggle among rival factions, tribal divisions and lack of an exit strategy may exacerbate internal conflict. An intervention concentrated on eliminating the threat of Islamic State while ignoring the political and social context will be counter-productive. Without political reconciliation, it is unlikely that there will be stability in Libya.

Views expressed by the Author are personal. The Author is a Research Assistant at CLAWS









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Pavneet Chadha
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