ISIS’ New Front: Extremism in Libya

ISIS Fighters Patrol in Libya

ISIS Fighters Patrol in Libya

By David Gernon

Photograph of ISIS fighters in Libya courtesy of CBS News

In America, news of Libya either gets tied up with the fallout from the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi or the Michael Bay-directed film loosely based on the events from that night. However today Libya faces challenges more important than a Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, in 2016, the North African country is slowly descending into chaos from which a solution is looking increasingly unlikely. Five years on from the ousting of autocratic Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the country now has two governments and a third actor, the Islamic State (ISIS), controlling roughly 150 miles of land around the coastal town of Sirte, incidentally Qaddafi’s birthplace. It is unclear what can resolve this crisis. A unity government capable of taking on ISIS is not coming any time soon while some analysts argue intervention from the West will only bring further turmoil.

As with many of the Arab Spring uprisings, Libya’s once hopeful future has taken a sharp turn for the worse. The ongoing civil war, Libya’s second in five years, is a complicated one. Libya has many different factions vying for control, but three are thought to be the main players. In the east there is Operation Dignity, the internationally-recognized, Tobruk-based government led by General Khalifa Hifter, once a prominent figure in the Qaddafi regime but also a leader of the opposition during the eventual ousting of the colonel. Western Libya is controlled from Tripoli by a wide coalition known broadly as Libya Dawn led by the Islamic Brotherhood. Militias from the town of Misrata have wielded a large degree of influence within Libya Dawn. In the middle is the most worrisome participant: ISIS.

Even as the self-proclaimed caliphate struggles to hold territory in the Middle East amidst increased air strikes and ground advances against the group, its members find a haven in Libya. The land it controls was seized almost entirely in 2015. This foothold is its most significant achievement, providing a relatively safe base for attracting new recruits and planning attacks elsewhere. Most estimates now peg the number of troops ISIS has in Libya upwards of 5,000. As part of its territorial expansion, ISIS almost certainly controls some of Libya’s oil facilities, famed for their extremely low cost of production, increasing revenue for the group. It hopes for more expansion, sporadically attacking both those associated with Operation Dignity as well as Libya Dawn. One might expect pushback from either side to threaten the security ISIS currently operates with in the region. Alas, both Libyan factions seem far more concerned with holding their own territory than expelling the Salafi jihadists.

The international community hopes a unity government may be able to better focus its efforts on eradicating ISIS. While that may be an option, a unified Libya seems far off. A United Nations-led peace process, based in Tunisia, did produce a tentative agreement late last year. Yet the pact has proven ineffective thus far: the internationally-recognized parliament in Tobruk voted in late January to reject the deal while still affirming the peace plan if the proper changes were made. Among those changes, the most significant demand is the removal of Article 8 of the agreement, a provision which gives the presidential council the right to appoint the heads of the armed forces and security services. This threatens the position of General Hifter in the new government, who some deign as having eyed the throne as Libya’s next strongman. The UN says it will not reopen the deal until Tripoli parliament votes on the accord, leading to increased pessimism among Western leaders regarding the future prospects for peace. Qaddafi’s ousting came with the help of Western air power. Now, chances are increasing of another foreign intervention in the war-torn country, as some see it increasingly as the only viable option, though such a move could easily worsen the situation. Others in Libya even support a return to the monarchy as the clearest way out of the current chaos, although others decry such a move as desperate. Unfortunately for Libyans, if there were ever a time for desperation, it would surely look much like this.

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