Despite battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the West is woefully neglecting the spread of the terrorist group in Libya, where it poses a supreme danger not only to the Middle East and North Africa, but also to Europe, according to Israeli terrorism researchers.
“Libya is the only country besides Syria and Iraq where IS controls a large territory and controls government infrastructure, including a power plant, port, and economical ports,” said Reuven Erlich, a former senior officer in military intelligence and currently the head of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC). “We think that IS’s establishment in Libya poses a grave threat and it needs to be taken very seriously by Europe and the US.”
Several researchers at ITIC, which operates under the Israel Intelligence and Heritage Commemorations Center, spent a full year examining IS’s activity in Libya, and this week are publishing their worrying conclusions in a 175-paper report, entitled “ISIS in Libya: a Major Regional and International Threat.”
“So far, there hasn’t been an effective response by the international community,” Erlich told The Times of Israel. “The American and European strategy focuses on IS’s infrastructure in Syria and Iraq. But it all but ignores Libya. Libya is not just another country. It’s a country where IS rules over territory — the only place besides Iraq and Syria where it actually rules over parts of land – and therefore the US and Europe would be well advised to pay more attention to this issue and compose a strategy relating to Libya. Otherwise, the problem will soon find itself in their backyard.”
There has been the “occasional targeted killing of a terrorist,” but by and large in Libya, Erlich lamented, the Americans and the Europeans “have no comprehensive strategy regarding the combat against IS. And that’s a problem that should not be ignored.”
Since the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country has been in a perpetual state of civil war, making it fertile ground for the infiltration of a terrorist group such as IS. But while a large coalition has been formed to attack the organization in its home base in Syria and tackle it in Iraq, it has been allowed to fester mostly uninterrupted in North Africa.
“The branch of ISIS in Libya exploited the lack of a functioning government and the absence of international intervention to establish itself in the region around Sirte and from there to aspire to spread throughout Libya,” according to the ITIC report.
On February 18, 2015, IS conquered the large coastal city of Sirte in north-central Libya, which has since been functioning as the group’s capital in the country. “Sirte has a seaport, international airport, army bases, economic projects, oil installations and various government facilities. It is also Muammar Qaddafi’s birthplace and his tribe’s power base,” reads the report, an advance copy of which was made available to The Times of Israel.
In and around Sirte, IS built up a large military infrastructure for terrorism and guerrilla warfare against targets inside and outside Libya, the researchers write. Domestically, the organization attacks mainly government-supported military and militias, but has also executed Copts from Egypt and Christians from Eritrea.
“The establishment of ISIS in Libya increases the chaos and anarchy already plaguing the country, making it difficult to stabilize a central government,” the 175-page report reads.
Outside the country, IS’s primary target is Tunisia, due to its relative weakness, and also because it has symbolic value as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, according to the researchers. In the future, however, IS may increase its support for jihadist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Niger, Chad, Mali and Sudan, the report warns.
The Libyan branch of IS also has close ties with Nigeria’s jihadist Boko Haram and with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the group’s franchise in the Sinai Peninsula. Through Libya’s 1,115 kilometer-long border with Egypt, the local IS fighters may also smuggle weapons into the country, which may make their way to Gaza, the researchers posit.
Westerns should be particularly concerned about Libya’s proximity to Italy, which “makes ISIS’s presence there potentially dangerous not only to Italy but to all of Europe,” the document warns. “Their closeness may encourage ISIS to send terrorist operatives to Italy and other European countries once it has established itself in Sirte and other locations.” IS has already threatened terror attacks in Rome, which as the seat of the Vatican represents the Catholic world.
Some countries — such as France, the US, Egypt and Tunisia — are increasingly aware of the threats posed by an IS stronghold in Libya, the authors concede. “However, while the strategy the United States has implemented against ISIS since September 2014 professes to provide a comprehensive response to the challenge posed by ISIS, in reality it does not, because it focuses on Iraq and Syria. Therefore, it does not provide a response to ISIS’s spread to other countries, especially Libya and Egypt, and to the local and regional threats inherent therein,” they write.
“To deal with the overall threats of ISIS’s entrenchment in Libya, the United States and its European and Arab allies will have to change their concept of the anti-ISIS campaign,” the study concludes. “Their strategy should be extended to Libya and the other countries where ISIS is trying to establish itself, which would make it more comprehensive.”
Security experts widely acknowledge that IS gaining a foothold in Libya could have dramatic implications, but not everyone agrees with the Israeli researchers’ claim that the West is not doing enough to counter the threat.
“In Europe, people are talking about it, the French and the Italians for example. The Americans are not talking about it. The Americans don’t like talking about it because if you talk about it there is the presumption of the need for action,” said François Heisbourg, a former security adviser to the French defense minister who currently chairs the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Over the last two months, the French air force has been flying numerous reconnaissance flights over Libya and it is likely that Paris is involved in other forms of information collection as well, he said. “Would I be surprised if there were eventual French bombing operations in Libya? No, I wouldn’t be surprised.”