ISIS is fueling the Libyan crisis day by day
The plumes of black smoke from Es Sider and Ras Lanuf could be seen from space — a black marker of Isis’ destructive power that hung in the sky, meandering in a trail over the coast of Libya.
On January 4, members of the jihadi group blew up seven 400,000-barrel storage tanks. A week later they hit the same depots again.
A third attack followed, this time by sea, on the oil port facilities of Zueitina further east.
Libya’s oil facilities are the economic lifeblood of the two dominant factions in the country’s civil war — the Islamist-backed General National Congress in Tripoli and the House of Representatives which was elected in 2014 but forced out to Tubruq.
“The raiders [Isis] have most of the weaponry possessed by the Libyan army — and better,” says Ali al-Hassi, spokesman for the Petroleum Defence Guards, a militia that backs the HoR and guards the vast refineries and pipelines of the Sirte basin, Libya’s oil crescent. “New cars. Powerful rockets. The most modern guns. We expect them to attack us again at any moment.”
The attacks, western intelligence officials believe, mark a new phase in the two-year conflict, where Isis has shifted its focus from local insurgent operations and land grabs to broader regional ambitions.
Its immediate aim is to undermine any prospect of a functioning unity government in Libya, which is also facing increased flows of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Unlike in Syria, the Libyan oilfields do not represent an urgent economic prize for Isis because of their huge size and mechanical complexity.
But disrupting their production has a significant impact on the country’s stability. The fields on Isis’ doorstep, says one European diplomat, “are like a lever they can use against the [unity government] negotiations [when they choose to]”.
Amid the grinding conflict, in which countless militias, local power brokers and warlords are jostling for influence alongside the rival eastern and western governments, the jihadis have carved out an enclave along a 200km arc of Libya’s central coastline, according to the latest UN estimate. At its core is Sirte, which is fast being turned into an urban stronghold to rival Mosul in Iraq and the Syrian city of Raqqa, in Isis’ transnational project. Ashton Carter, US defence secretary, recently described it as Isis’ most dangerous “metastasis” beyond Syria and Iraq.
With the west’s diplomatic efforts to broker a peace between the two rival centres of power at a stalemate, the urgent question facing counterterrorism chiefs in Europe and the US is how far Isis’ expansion still has to run in Libya — and what, if anything, they can do to contain it.
Isis does not have the same deep roots in Libya as it has in Iraq and Syria. There is no sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia that it can easily exploit. Its resources, both financial and in terms of manpower, are limited in comparison to those of other actors in the conflict.
However, the group’s campaign against the oil basin, which accounts for 80 per cent of Libya’s production, itself down from 1.6m barrels a day before the outbreak of war to less than 400,000 b/d, shows considerable tactical and military heft. The jihadis’ growth has been faster than many predicted. And while the attacks on the oil facilities around Ras Lanuf were repulsed, there is no force yet capable of taking the offensive to Isis on the ground. Even where Isis has been routed, such as in Derna, the site of its first Libyan cell, it has still managed to maintain
For weeks, western officials have been hinting at the possibility of co-ordinated and sustained military strikes. In Washington, the Pentagon has already drafted a long target list, according to officials. But President Barack Obama is reluctant to commit US resources to another fight he sees as a primarily European responsibility.
In a valedictory interview in The Atlantic on his foreign policy legacy, Mr Obama hinted that Europe’s leaders — he singled out David Cameron, the UK prime minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, former French president — had been asleep at the wheel on Libya.
“So far the west has been able to take slight reassurance from the fact that after four years of chaos in Libya, the situation isn’t worse,” says Jonathan Eyal, associate director of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute. “The real worry — which we have to face up to now with Isis growing — is that the mess spreads.
“Mali and Niger are already in trouble. Tunisia has a huge extremism problem. And look at a country like Algeria — government revenues wiped out by the price of oil, a president who is on his deathbed and completely non-functioning, a military dictatorship which cannot conceive of political transition and a bulging young population with no hope of employment … The fear is for Isis in Libya to start a fire across north Africa.”
Finding a new home
The growth of Isis in Libya has at times appeared opportunistic, with local factions using the jihadis’ brand to win support in the civil war, but it is also the product of careful planning and a strategy based on “remaining and expanding”.
Two western intelligence officials describe a deliberate plan set in motion in 2014. Directed from the highest levels of the leadership in Syria and Iraq, it was intended to secure territory in Libya. Around 300 Libyan nationals who had fought for Isis in Syria were sent back to north Africa as part of the initial phase of the operation. They were led by one of the group’s top commanders, Abu Nabil al-Anbari — an Iraqi. He was given “millions” in currency to cement alliances and establish operations, one of the intelligence officials says.
Isis found Sirte to be the most fertile ground to expand its “caliphate”. It has gathered support from the Gaddafa tribe, the clan of Muammer Gaddafi, the former leader who was killed in the city in 2011 during the country’s uprising. According to Pentagon officials, Isis now commands as many as 6,500 fighters in Libya. Its position in Sirte gives it command of a stretch of coastline just 600km from the Italian coast.
“They have been testing — pushing in places to [identify] weak spots and take advantage of them where they can,” one Italian diplomat says. “But all the time they are building up their abilities. There are no limits on the weapons they can get access too. And there is potentially no limit — across north Africa — to the manpower they can try and attract.”
The group is using tactics it first employed to gain ground in Syria: a blend of covert measures, propaganda, violent attacks to eliminate dissent and opportunistic land grabs. The co-opting of local tribes and militias, struggling to fend for themselves amid Libya’s chaos, has been critical.
“It wasn’t so much the strength of Isis that allowed it to control Sirte, as much as the weakness of security there,” says Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Once Isis has gained influence, it moves quickly to ensure it has a monopoly on power. In Sirte all of the small militias and security forces were quickly disbanded — on occasion through ruthless violence. When the Ferjan tribe in its new Libyan territory opposed Isis’ takeover, the jihadis dealt with them in the same way they dealt with the recalcitrant men of the al-Sheitaat tribe in Syria in August 2014: they killed them all, according to US state department officials.
“[Isis] is taking on all the military and social aspects of its core in Syria and Iraq,” says Harleen Gambhir, counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. But, she says, one of the most worrying developments is the group’s growing operational capability.
“In January and February we saw a very sophisticated, complex campaign on Libya’s oil infrastructure, with simultaneous holding operations in the west [of the country].”
While intent on stoking the conflict between the two main warring sides, Isis also has a more immediate target: to become the dominant Islamist force in the country by peeling away support from groups linked to al-Qaeda.
“Momentum has always been key for Isis … it’s an exceptionally powerful force multiplier,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and now director of special projects at the Soufan Group.
“If you are a kid in a local militia in Libya, there are all these rival groups that are going nowhere and then there’s suddenly this chance to join a worldwide movement. It has worked.”
So far, Isis’ brutal, recidivist narrative seems to be proving just as potent a rallying cry in Libya as it has been in places more obviously riven by sectarianism. The televised beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach near Sirte in February 2015 was a carefully calculated announcement of Isis’ arrival in Libya to a global audience.
Western intelligence officials are carefully monitoring the impact of such messaging in Libya and elsewhere in north Africa. It is not just the footsoldiers who have flocked to Isis in Libya either. Key leaders of Ansar al-sharia, the once-dominant jihadi group, have also defected.
The extent to which Isis can continue to strip support from Islamist rivals, scoop up radicalised youths from the region and win the backing of leading jihadi figures will determine its ability to leverage its presence in Libya for the next phase of its operations.
Western intelligence agencies see Isis’ efforts in Libya as groundwork. The jihadis are preparing for Libya to become their centre of operations should Raqqa and Mosul fall, one senior Middle Eastern diplomat says.
Among Isis fighters in Syria, the idea has wide currency with some believing that the military campaigns against it in Syria and Iraq — which has seen the group lose just over a fifth of its territory in the past year, according to IHS Janes — are propelling them toward Libya. A former rebel commander from Deir Ezzor, who fought with Isis for more than a year before fleeing, says that Libya had become a kind of El Dorado among group members.
“The military forces, the civilian members — everyone feels things are going in that direction [toward Libya]. Especially after the [air] strikes and their increasing weakness and the obstacles they’re facing now in both Syria and Iraq,” he says.
An intelligence official in the anti-Isis coalition says they believe a “dozen or so” high-ranking Isis members and their families have left Mosul for Libya in recent months.
“Isis is focusing on Libya because it is getting ready to find an alternative homeland,” says Hisham al-Hashimi, an adviser to the Baghdad government. “The Libyan front is big — there is oil in the country, Salafi-Jihadism and chaos.”
Western options to try and check Isis’s Libyan growth are limited. For months European diplomats, led by Italy’s foreign ministry, have promised a political breakthrough on a unity government. But it has so far proved elusive. And few now believe it is possible to achieve at all. Even if it was, any military effort against Isis would depend on fulsome co-operation between bitterly opposed factions on the ground.
A separate, multilateral western military intervention would also be fraught with difficulty. “It would likely create more problems than it would solve,” says Ms Gazzini. “Particularly if it was perceived to be taking the side of one mainstream camp over another.”
For now the west’s holding strategy is two-pronged. Limited air strikes — like the one in the western town of Sabratha which killed more than 40 people in February — are targeting Isis’ top Libyan and Tunisian leadership. Perhaps more important are efforts to try and cajole military players on the ground to focus on Isis in Sirte. UK and US special forces’ efforts, for example, are aimed at encouraging militias in Misurata to take on the jihadis. France is focused on aiding HoR-backed forces around Benghazi and the east of the country.
Isis, meanwhile, has arguably a more expansive range of options.
“I think there are three main things they could do,” Ms Gambhir says. “Step up their attacks against powerful military groups and the oilfields to deepen the conflict and spread more violence. Increase attacks against political targets — assassinations of key politicians … Or three, they can [try to] regionalise the conflict — Destabilise Tunisia. Perhaps Algeria too.”
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon