Excerpt of an article originally published under the title “Islamic State Moves to Libya with the Promise of Fresh Plunder.”
… The importance of the Islamic State holding [in Libya] derives from its location and the number of fighters under Islamic State command in the area.
Islamic State controls an area of about 200km around the city of Sirte on the Libyan coast. The greater part of this area was secured last year against the backdrop of Islamic State setbacks in Iraq and Syria, and general chaos in Libya. The location of Sirte offers the possibility for Islamic State of infiltration into Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. Sirte was the birthplace of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It has extensive infrastructure, including an international airport, a seaport and oil installations.
Islamic State is thought to have about 4000 to 5000 fighters in Sirte, and is recruiting African migrants making their way to the coast. The movement also derives the depth of its support in the Sirte area from the loyalty of tribesmen Clearly, the goal is to seek to replicate the model for success in Iraq and Syria: once a territorial base is established, a military force can be built up that can be used aggressively to expand the holding.
Islamic State achieved its greatest successes this way, when its forces swept from eastern Syria into Iraq in 2014. In Libya, as in these countries, central government effectively has collapsed and the country is in a state of civil war. Two rival governments vie for power: an internationally recognised authority in Tobruk in the east and an Islamist de facto power in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.
The Islamic State area of control is situated between the two. The organisation hopes to expand east and west. Its immediate targets are the city of Misrata, halfway between Sirte and Tripoli, and Ajdabiya to the east, near the Sidr oil port and the refinery at Ras Lanuff. Notably, Islamic State propaganda has begun to place increased stress on its Libyan holding. New recruits are being encouraged to head for this area rather than for the Levant. Some prominent commanders of the movement are reported to have relocated to Libya, too.
Islamic State was able to take Sirte last year because it faced little resistance. The local tribes were largely affiliated with the Gaddafi regime and had little reason for loyalty to either of the administrations in the country. Indeed, Islamic State may serve a purpose as a new structure of loyalty and protection for them, analogous to the process in which Sunni former loyalists of the Saddam regime found a home with Islamic State in Iraq.
For a while, both Libyan governments and the West appeared content to let Islamic State fester in its small desert domain. The Tripoli and Tobruk governments are mainly concerned with ruling their own areas rather than striking out against one another. However, as Islamic State prepares to expand towards areas vital for the Libyan oil industry, the issue becomes more urgent and has begun to appear on the radar screens of European policymakers.
In February, US special forces carried out a raid on the town of Sabratha in which 40 Islamic State men were killed. Reports have appeared in the British and French media concerning the presence of special forces from both countries close to Islamic State’s holding in Sirte. British and French aircraft are carrying out reconnaissance missions over Sirte. Le Monde described what it termed a “secret war” being conducted by French intelligence and special forces personnel against Islamic State on Libyan soil.
At the same time, there appears to be no prospect of a large-scale involvement of Western forces on the ground to vanquish Islamic State in Libya. Rather, the strategy appears to resemble that employed in Syria and Iraq: namely, use air power to partner with local allies identified by intelligence and bolstered by the discreet presence of Western special forces.
Attempts to bring together the two rival administrations in Libya are ongoing but have run aground. An agreement reached for a unity government on December 17 remains unimplemented.
At the same time, the two governing entities with their Western support are far from helpless, and Islamic State, with its 5000 fighters, is far from invincible. This means the Islamic State enclave is unlikely to score major territorial advances. But it is also unlikely to disappear.
Ultimately, Islamic State is part of a much broader problem: the collapse and fragmentation of several formerly centralised Arab states. It grows and flourishes in the environments left by this collapse. Will McCants, an expert on Islamic State and Sunni Islamism recently said more generally that the record suggested such movements tended to overreach themselves. Their inability to accept a limited role leads to their enemies uniting to destroy them.
This may well be the final fate to be suffered by Islamic State. In the interim period, however, it remains powerful and dangerous. …
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.