ISIS now finds itself fighting a war against multiple enemies and on numerous fronts. In Iraq, ISIS is clashing with the Iraqi government, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Iranian backed Shia militias and US led airstrikes. In Syria, ISIS is battling with Syrian government forces, various rebel factions, other jihadist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra Front, and as of recently, Russian military forces.
However, even with the terrorist organization being targeted by so many different military forces, many security experts are now saying the fight against the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” needs to be expanded beyond Iraq and Syria to Libya.
Even before the fall of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, security analysts noted that there was a significant deal of radical Islamist sentiment amongst Libyan rebel forces. According to an article by the Telegraph UK, Gaddafi told UK Prime Minister Tony Blair during a phone call in 2011 that “[jihadists] want to control the Mediterranean and then they will attack Europe”. Gaddafi insisted that the overwhelming bulk of Libyan rebel forces were al-Qaeda cells and that if his regime collapsed, Libya would become a hotbed of Islamic militant fervor. Many leaders of rebel militia groups claimed that Gaddafi had not been Islamic enough or even accused his regime of being anti-Islamic or of favoring Black sub-Saharan Libyans (who were accused by some rebel forces of being Gaddafi regime mercenaries only on the basis of the color of their skin) at the expense of Arab Libyans.
The prevalence of hardline Islamists was apparent since the inception of the Libyan revolution, even though it was underreported by the mainstream media. Amnesty International took note of violent attacks by rebel forces against sub-Saharan Africans, such as the attack on the town of Tawergha in which over 30,000 of the town’s Black residents were either killed or forced to flee. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime in the west, BBC notes that Islamists began targeting Sufi (a moderate and mystical branch of Islam), mosques, temples and shrines. The failure of rebel forces to create a cohesive government is also indicative of the prevalence of hardline Islamists.
Currently, Libya is split into two competing governments. In the west, the Islamist Libya Dawn, located in Tripoli (Libya’s capital), proclaims itself the legitimate government of Libya, while the more moderate General National Congress (GNC), in the east port city of Tobruk, proclaims itself to be the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
While most international governments recognize the GNC as being the legitimate government, resolving the issue through international diplomacy has been quite difficult as Qatar and Turkey have vigorously supported the Libyan Dawn. In the interstices and the periphery of this conflict between the two governments, more extreme Islamist groups have been able to take root – many of whom have, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, come to pledge themselves to ISIS.
The Huffington Post claims that “Analysts and officials worry that Libya is increasingly becoming a sort of fallback option for ISIS as it loses territory and power in Syria and Iraq”. In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS has shown its great organizational prowess, when compared to its competitors, in chaotic environments.
This article also notes that ISIS tends to “metastasize in places that lack a strong civil society or central government”. An article in The New York Times claims that according to Pentagon officials “The top leadership of the Islamic State in Syria has sent half a dozen top lieutenants to help organize what Western officials consider the most dangerous of the group’s eight global affiliates”.
Since December, there has even been multiple media outlets, such as The Daily Mail, who have claimed that the purported “caliph” of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has fled to Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte (de-facto capital of ISIS in Libya) as, due to the lack of heavy military opposition, ISIS has much more stable and comfortable holdings in Libya even though it controls much less territory.
According to The Globe and Mail, “From Libya, ISIS has plotted numerous atrocities. The gunmen who killed 21, mostly European tourists, at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia last March, and another 38 people – including 35 Britons —on a Tunisian beach three months later, are all thought to have trained at ISIS camps in neighboring Libya”. The fact that Libya is becoming a springboard for terrorism, as predicted by Gaddafi, is putting increasing pressure on the international community to step in, particularly the US.
However, **But, as is noted by The New York Times, “Mr. Obama, wary of embarking on an intervention in another Muslim country, has told his aides to redouble their efforts to help form a unity government in Libya at the same time the Pentagon refines its options”. It seems some reassessment of the situation may be needed.
Fighting the Islamic State is not so simple. Though it has territory and even a “capital”, the actual holdings of ISIS are not as significant as it seems, nor is its hierarchy. Like al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, ISIS is a “flexible” entity. It relies on not only directly training militants but on the spread of ideology and indirect radicalization as well. The two attackers at San Bernadino had pledged their allegiance to ISIS but neither actually had any direct contact with active members of ISIS. ISIS also aims to inspire other homegrown radicals to join its ranks, such as the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Also, much like al-Qaeda, the death of its high ranking leaders is not likely to dramatically harm the group.
In an interview with Business Insider, US Army General Stanley McChrystal claims that ISIS has been so successful “not because they’re a centralized well-coordinated entity, but because they are decentralized, because they allow all the different parts of ISIS to do it and just execute. They don’t try to over-control it, because that would slow it down, that would give you a lowest common denominator solution. Instead what they do, is they’re on there all the time, and their sheer volume, makes it a quality all its own.” McChrystal goes on to emphasize the overwhelming importance of not treating ISIS as a traditional military force: “I think we’re going to have to take a much wider view of ISIS, and stop thinking of ISIS as a traditional force or entity, don’t worry as much about the piece of ground that they own, as much as the entity, the ideas they’re propagating are what you’ve got to go after”. A 2014 in-depth article by Bloomberg Business, titled “The Banality of Islamic State: How ISIS Corporatized Terror”, claims that “The foundation of Islamic State’s management model is more akin to General Motors than to a religious dynasty”.
Even if military intervention occurs in Libya it should be remembered that destroying ISIS is not just a matter of chasing it from nation to nation and stripping away its territory – It’s also a matter of tarnishing their brand by beating them for the hearts and minds of disenfranchised Islamic populations.
Assistant External News Editor