Paris: A potentially critical conflict has gone largely unnoticed in southern Libya yet could open up a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa for the Daesh group, analysts say.
Daesh has consolidated its hold along Libya’s northern coast, and experts are concerned the terrorists may now be pushing into the remote desert region of Fezzan in the southwest of the country.
Sitting on the crossroads between Algeria, Niger and Chad, Fezzan offers lucrative sources of income from smuggling and already acts as a hideout for Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi) and other terrorist groups.
It is one of Africa’s main drug routes, traversed by migrants from sub-Saharan Africa hoping to get to Europe as well as by foreign mercenaries, mostly African, heading to join Daesh at its Sirte stronghold in northeastern Libya.Penetrating south through Fezzan could ultimately help Daesh link up with its brutal Nigerian sister organisation, Boko Haram, as well as providing a rear base in case of any international assault on its positions along the Mediterranean coast, analysts say.However, the desert region remains something of an intelligence black hole and the extent of Daesh’s intrusion is unclear.
For now, the group’s priority is holding on to its northern strongholds, said Jerome Tubiana, a researcher with the Small Arms Survey think-tank.
“That said, going down towards Niger, forming ties with Boko Haram — the IS [Daesh] arm in west Africa — and competing with Aqmi could obviously be tempting for IS,” he said.
Terrorist groups are able to exploit a complex rash of local rivalries in Libya’s southern desert region.
Since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Fezzan has been embroiled in conflict involving the ethnic Tubus and Tawareqs, as well as two Arab tribes, the Zuwaya and the Awlad Sulaiman.
“Military authority [in Fezzan] lies mainly with tribal, criminal and extremist groups,” said a UN report this month.
The Tubus are currently in the ascendant in Fezzan after helping to overthrow Gaddafi.
Having been marginalised under the former regime, they now control much of the region’s resources, including recently discovered gold mines spread across the three-way border between Libya, Chad and Niger.
“With the fall of Gaddafi, the Tubus… took control of the borders between these three countries and between Libya and Sudan,” said Tubiana.
That has given them control over much of the local smuggling and trade, and they are fighting for control of oil and petrol stations, he told AFP.“Their militias have set up checkpoints on the main cross-Saharan roads… transporting food and manufactured goods from Libya and importing livestock from the Sahel,” Tubiana said, adding that contraband such as cigarettes and cocaine also pass through the region.
For Daesh, this presents opportunities as well as challenges.
The many local militias means there are plenty of groups who would be hostile to a potential Daesh takeover.
French soldiers stationed in the Sahel desert are also lying in wait, Tubiana said.
So far, Daesh has carried out few attacks in the region, though analysts say this may be because it wishes to avoid reprisals from the many regional actors who take a close interest in Fezzan.
The Tubus enjoy the backing of the internationally recognised government based in Libya’s eastern city of Tobruk, while their Tawareq and Arab rivals have the support of the Islamist coalition that rules from Tripoli.
Regional powers have also been sucked into the conflict in southern Libya, with the Tubus’ natural ally Chad finding itself in a proxy war with Qatar.
Daesh “could be concerned about follow-up foreign intervention [air raids] that could weaken the position in the northern regions,” said the TRACterrorism think-tank.