MS Risk Blog

Leaders Warn of Possible IS Expansion into War-Torn Libya

Posted on in Libya title_rule

The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has built a base in Libya, from which to exploit tribal conflicts and expand across Africa, though experts have said that the jihadists remain vulnerable even if the West’s attention is elsewhere.

Since the overthrow and death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya has collapsed into a chaotic country, which has seen militias competing against one another for control. The country’s current insecurity has made it an ideal place for IS to expand into. While Libya not only offers an alternative base for the group, if it is forced out of its current territory in Syria and Iraq, many experts fear that it could also take advantage of the ongoing tribal conflicts and could expand southwards into the Sahel desert region of central Africa, particularly Chad, Niger and Sudan. According to one expert, “IS is provoking tensions and making alliances,” particularly between the competing Tuareg and Toubou tribes.

While for now, IS has only a limited foothold in Libya, it is enough to project violence into neighbouring states, particularly Tunisia, where the group has already claimed three deadly attacks this year.   Furthermore, Libya lies just 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the Mediterranean from Italy, and is a route for thousands of refugees, which is another weakness that IS militants could exploit.

Within Libya, IS jihadists have gradually built up control of several towns that were of minimal interest to other militias already operating in the country. Most notably is Kadhafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. According to Geoff Porter, head of the US-based North Africa Risk Consultancy, “Libya without a state is not really a functioning place. IS in Libya would be vulnerable to the same problems as the Kadhafi regime – including the need to import 70 percent of its food – and there’s a much smaller population from which to extort revenue and taxes,” adding, “were they to be eradicated in Syria and Iraq, they could try to relocate the bulk of their activities to Libya, but they would be a potentially more manageable threat.” The country’s long coastline and desert plains effectively leaves IS vulnerable to outside attack. However as in Syria and Iraq, the major problem for the West will be finding partners on the ground to fight IS militants. Libya currently has two governments who are vying for power: a militia alliance, which includes Islamists, that overran Tripoli in August 2014; and the internationally recognized administration that fled to eastern Libya. While Western efforts have focused on fostering a reconciliation between the tow sides, hoping that they will then turn their firepower on IS and other jihadist groups that operate in the country, months of UN-brokered talks have made minimal regress. For now, IS has been held in check by the armed opponents that operate in the country. IS was driven out of the city of Dernam in June by an al-Qaeda affiliate. It is also jostling for control in other areas.

Despite the threat that IS could take over Libya, there is little chance that the West will intervene in Libya any time soon as its attention is almost entirely focused on Syria. However there have been some international leaders who have warned of the growing threat. Amongst the few leaders to focus on Libya is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who warned last week that it could be the “next emergency.” The Untied States has also been quietly targeting IS in the country. It has claimed to have killed its Libyan leader, Abu Nabil, with a drone strike that targeted a compound in Derna on 13 November.

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