ISIS’s losses in Syria and Iraq are being compensated by the expansion in Libya, which is gradually emerging as the group’s new province in the heart of North Africa and at the doors of Europe
In 2011, the Middle East became the theatre of one of the most remarkable political developments of this just-begun century: the Arab Spring.
Started in the winter of 2010 in Tunisia with the desperate deed of Mohamed Bouazizi, the popular uprising against authoritarianism soon became a wave that reached other countries of the region – Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Praised all over the world as the event that would finally open to the Middle East the doors of secular, modern and democratic statehood, the Arab Spring brought instead more repression and authoritarianism than the one it had tried to overthrow.
With the exception of Tunisia, all the countries that in 2011 found themselves on the frontline of the Arab awakening are now either locked in bloody civil wars or frustrated under authoritarian rules. In Egypt, al-Sisi’s rise to power through a military coup that ousted Morsi’s elected government had little to do with the democratic aspirations that had led the Egyptians to Tahrir Square. In Bahrain, the quest for democracy and equality that spread through the streets of Manama in early 2011 was met with the government’s increased marginalization of the Shia majority, now victim of a blind and dangerous sectarian policy. Yemen, for its part, has been for the past year the theatre of a bloody civil war fought between the Houthis and Hadi’s supporters with the participation of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. Likewise, such mix of civil and proxy conflict is reality in Syria, a collapsed country where government’s forces, rebels, terrorist groups and foreign powers are fighting each other with no truce on sight.
Finally, there is Libya. Here, one of the most well-known and impactful images of the Arab Spring was the killing of Gheddafi, which brought to an end four decades of dictatorship and spread hopes of a new democratic, free and secure Libya. Far from following this hoped path, though, the country’s development has taken a different route and one that has led it to collapse. Since the elections of June 2014, Libya has lost any appearance of cohesion and today the country is divided between two governments: in Tobruk, where there is the internationally recognized House of Representatives, supported by the Libyan National Army; and in Tripoli, where there is the Islamist-inspired General National Congress, supported by the Libya Dawn militia.
The two governments have been engaged in a bloody civil war since their polarization and any attempt to reconciliation has thus far been deemed to failure.
As if the lack of any credible Libyan central government and the spread of violence throughout the country was not worrying enough, it is now made even more so by ISIS’s intervention.
Placed under pressure in Iraq and Syria, al-Baghdadi’s group is now trying to expand its terrorist network wherever there is room for intervention, and stateless Libya provides the ideal context to build the Caliphate’s next wilayah.
Such strategic calculation has thus far proved successful for the self-declared Islamic State. Thanks to the lack of a united ground force capable of countering ISIS’s advance in any effective and durable way and thanks to the presence instead of a high number of militias fighting against each other, ISIS has been increasingly taking roots in the country.
Strong of 5,000 fighters – some come from neighboring states, others absorbed from local groups such as Ansar al-Sharia – ISIS has carried out a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it is has been carrying out terrorist attacks – both in Libya and in neighboring countries such as Tunisia – in order to spread fear and attract supporters, and has been setting on fire oil installations in order to weaken the shirking Libyan economy even more and avert any possibility of state-building on part of other groups. On the other hand – and more threateningly – it has managed to establish its control over 180 miles of Libyan coastline: it has occupied the cities of Tarablus, Fezzan and Barqah and more recently Sirte, which, located between Tripoli and Benghazi, is now on the verge of becoming Libya’s Raqqa.
Such modus operandi, made of terror attacks and efforts at territorial control, reminds of the strategy adopted by ISIS in Syria back in 2012, when the group began under the leadership of Al-Baghdadi its violent upsurge in the Levant.
In Syria, ISIS managed to exploit the power vacuum created by the civil war exploded in 2011 to spread its presence there and increasingly gain territorial control. Implementing a plan designed by Haji Bakr as early as 2010, ISIS gradually penetrated the country by efficiently combining a strategy of terror aimed at spreading fear in the local population and attracting recruits, and a territorial strategy aimed at occupying as many villages as possible in those Sunni areas where the war had cancelled any form of authority. Thanks to a high degree of coordination and to a thoroughly planned action, ISIS was able to raise its flag on many areas of Eastern and Northern Syria and place under its direct control sources of revenues such as oil plants, grain silos and hydric resources.
On the background of the Syrian civil war, ISIS was thus successful in laying the foundation of a Caliphate that was later expanded to neighboring Iraq and that has been redrawing the map of the Levant that we had known since 1922.
The same dynamics that have turned part of Syria in the territorial expression of a self-declared Caliphate that no jihadist group had ever been able to establish are now at play in Libya, a country whose control has for ISIS a dramatic strategic value.
Firstly, Libya is an ideal recruiting ground for fighters coming from other Northern African states such as Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. Secondly, it is located in the heart of North Africa and at the doors of Europe, thus strengthening ISIS’s threat and widening its potential reach. Finally, thanks to a geographical position that makes it a “bridge” between inner Africa and Europe, it is a traditional point of departure of people-smuggling routes across the Mediterranean – routes that can favor ISIS through a two-way flow: the flow of wannabe-jihadists coming from Europe, and the flow of trained terrorists towards Europe.
ISIS’s presence in Libya is therefore a direct threat for both North Africa and Europe and the concern generated across both shores of the Mediterranean by ISIS’s rise might lead countries such as Italy, France, the UK, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria to regard an anti-ISIS coalition as a top priority.
Right now (and the meeting recently held in Rome confirmed that) no such option has been seriously put on the table, and the truth is that it cannot be until Libya is inherently divided and torn apart by local militias fighting one against the other. The recent experiences of Syria and Iraq, and the past experiences of foreign interventions in the Middle East, have taught how the success of any external intervention is dependent on the support and cohesion of the local population.
Easier to say than to do, the first step of the fight against ISIS’s Libyan wilayat is the resolution of the Tobruk-Tripoli divide. If both North Africa and Europe have a direct interest in defeating al-Baghdadi’s group, then their joint efforts shall go in this direction and aim to create the conditions for a dialogue and reconciliation that is now more vital than ever.