An Islamic State militant holds a gun while standing behind what are said to be Ethiopian Christians in Wilayat Fazzan, in this still image from an undated video made available on a social media website on April 19, 2015.
Five years after the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the country has plunged into chaos, allowing extremist groups to rise up in place of the dictator’s brutal regime.
The failure to establish a unity government that includes both rival governments fighting for power in Libya has led the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) to exploit the power vacuum and take control of territory in the country, a new report from strategic security firm The Soufan Group notes. And Al Qaeda has also used the situation in Libya to its advantage.
A 2015 agreement between Libya’s two rival governments — one in the east that’s internationally recognized and one in the west that controls the capital of Tripoli — fell apart earlier this year. The UN-brokered agreement would have created a cabinet that would have included members of both governments.
“Even if reconciliation leads to the formation of a unity government, that government will immediately face the monumental task of reuniting the country both socially and militarily,” The Soufan Group wrote in its report.
The group continued: “It will need to provide law and order for the Libyan people; dismantle the extensive black market networks flourishing in Libya; and secure operational control of the main drivers of the Libyan economy — primarily the oil and gas infrastructure. It will also need to defeat the extremist networks that have capitalized on the weakness of the Libyan state and used the country as a base to generate revenue and train fighters.”
As a US-led coalition continues to threaten ISIS’ main base of operations in Raqqa, Syria, the group has established a fall-back capital of sorts in Sirte, Libya — Gaddafi’s hometown. ISIS’ branch in Sirte is the only affiliate that the group’s central leadership directly controls, and leaders have reportedly adopted a slogan that reflects Sirte’s heightened profile within the jihadist organization: “Sirte will be no less than Raqqa.”
Libya’s oil resources make it especially attractive territory for ISIS, which generates millions of dollars in revenue each year by selling oil it acquires from seized infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.
The chaos in Libya started when Gaddafi was overthrown, with the US supporting the revolutionaries.
In October 2011, after Gaddafi’s death at the hands of rebels who opposed his regime, US President Barack Obama gave a speech from the Rose Garden. He said the US was “committed to the Libyan people” and that the country looked forward to “the quick formation of an interim government, and a stable transition to Libya’s first free and fair elections.”
But that vision still hasn’t been realized. And the failure to establish a stable and inclusive government could have dire consequences for both Libya and the West, as terrorist groups look to use the country as a base to launch international attacks.
Foreign fighters are now encouraged to travel to Libya, as they were once encouraged to go to Syria when ISIS first established a base there, and both ISIS and Al Qaeda are using the country as a safe haven.
A new report from the Brookings Institution that was also released on Wednesday noted that the competition between the world’s two biggest jihadist groups could lead to more attacks on the West.
“The world no longer faces one Sunni jihadi threat, but two, as Al Qaeda and IS compete to outperform each other on the global stage,” the report said.
Libya could be an ideal staging area for these attacks, especially considering its proximity to Europe.
“The power vacuum left by the Gaddafi regime — and the enormous stockpiles of weapons — created a security situation that continues to threaten the region, and which has severe implications for the broader global struggle against violent extremism,” The Soufan Group states.
US officials have taken note.
Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford testified before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month and said he was “watching what’s happening in Libya with concern.”
“They have an increasing ability to project military power out of their base at Sirte, and they have a safe haven space to organize, plan, and recruit,” Ford said. “Just as the attack in Paris was organized in Syria, so they have space in Libya to do the same kind of thing.”
ISIS seems to be mimicking its Iraq and Syria strategy in Libya — seizing territory, imposing strict laws, and setting up propaganda “media points” in the city. And ISIS has already begun attacking Libyan oil facilities in an effort to find a new source of funding as airstrikes target ISIS’ oil resources in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is now thought to have thousands of fighters in Libya.