Saturday, September 12, 2015

Assessing the Threat Level of the Islamic State in Libya

Guest Contributor, Dr. Alaya Allani, is Professor of  Modern History at Manouba University in Tunisia.  An earlier version of this post appeared in, The Arab Weekly, September 11, 2015.

From January through Au­gust, 2015, the number of Islam­ic State (IS) followers in Libya doubled. The rapid expansion of the IS in Libya and its threat to the region deserve more scrutiny. 
Islamic State terrorists executing Ethiopian Christians in Libya, April 2015
Not much is known about IS’s beginnings in Libya, other than it took ad­vantage of a time of weak central authority. weak national identity and the absence of na­tional political consensus.

Politically, the movement touts “universal jihad” and is known for the rapid deployment of its forces and its brutal cruelty. IS fighters quickly took over Sirte and vital infrastructure and institutions earlier this year. The extreme cruelty with which its fighters carry out executions has been widely publicized.

The Islamic State parades through Muammar Qaddafi's home town of Sirte, Feb. 2015
The organization's international dimension can be seen in the di­verse Arab nationalities of its lead­ership and the fluidity of change among leaders.  This year five IS leaders in Libya were killed. Abu Bara al-Yemeni was the first.  His death was followed by the assassination of Imad Sahd, a Libyan.  Subsequnelty, Muftah al-Ghuwaiel, the head of the assas­sination section of IS, was killed, followed by Basheer al-Darsi, another Libyan. The fifth leader to be killed was the Saudi, Abu Azzam al-Jazrawi. None of the kill­ings weakened the movement. Each time a leader fell, he was quickly replaced.

The current leader of the IS in Libya goes by the nom de guere, “al-Khazemi,” and is thought to be a Yemeni national. He is supposedly act­ing as a governor and representative of IS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Meanwhile, the logistics section is headed by Abu Nabil al-Anbari, an Iraqi. Many nationalities make up the movement. In the area of al-Qardabiya, near Sirte, Tunisians, Saudis, Yemenis, Iraqis and others rub shoulders.

The rapid deployment of IS in a strategic area such as Sirte, in the middle of the Libyan coast, is a sign that the movement has a spe­cific plan that starts with occupying large areas in Libya and will soon threaten neighboring countries. 
The Islamic State flag on the Ougadougou Conference Center, Sirte, March 2015

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What is really frightening is that ISIS ideology is starting to take root in many Libyan cities. This situation may seem normal considering the absence of legitimate authorities and their services. To satisfy needs, people simply turn to the strongest hand available.

Reports in areas under ISIS influ­ence indicate a growing adherence by local populations to the ideals of a caliphate and their acceptance of takfiri ideology, including the kill­ing of opposing groups.

In this respect, researchers have demonstrated that Salafist and takfiri ideologies, such as the ones held by IS and al-Qa'ida, are the direct offspring of Muslim Brotherhood ideology. The latter meets with the former in rejecting any national boundaries of the Islamic umma and believes in the universal character of the Islamic state.

This ideological belief explains, in large measure, how extrem­ist religious movements in Libya have easily accepted leadership from non-Libyans, because it is con­comitant for those who accept the IS' ideology to accept the removal of territorial or tribal boundaries and unconditionally adhere to "universal jihad." Sooner or later, the IS ideology in Libya will represent a threat to neighboring countries. Preventive measures must be taken, including increased border patrols and con­trols, improved intelligence gath­ering and fighting smuggling, the backbone of IS financing in Libya.

Credible reports cite two main sources of IS funding. The first is the spoils of war resulting from raiding “enemy” territory or acts of bandit­ry known in jihadist jargon as ihti­taab. Sources have reported the disap­pearance of $36.6 million en route from the Central Bank of Libyan to Sirte. Rumurs point to the IS's Libyan leadership.  The IS also derives substantial in­come from selling drugs, hallucino­genic pills and arms.

Given the IS's presence, Libya’s political future is dark indeed. The danger is not so much the IS's terrorist acts, as it is that other Libyan factions are fighting each other rather than pre­senting a unified front against the terrorist movement. If Libyan factions do not steer away from fratricidal policies and accept the principle of power shar­ing, ISIS will swallow up whatever is left of the Libyan territory.

The IS's continued control of a large area of Libya will eventually lead to the creation of a “no man’s land” along the country’s borders. Recently, a Libyan border patrol unit withdrew from the Egyptian border. This disturbed Egyptian border authorities who fear a degrading of their surveillance system and it is feared there will be an increase in arms smuggling into Egypt.

Algeria has doubled the number of soldiers on its Libyan border and Tunisia began building a sand-and-dirt wall along its frontier at a cost of more than $51 million.

Let’s not forget that Arab League decisions have not gone beyond the level of rhetoric and propaganda. It will become increasingly necessary to tackle the situation in Libya through multiple re­gional conferences aimed at bring­ing various factions in the Libyan conflict — except the jihadists — to the negotiation table.

If that approach fails, the security threat in the region will increase day by day until it will no longer  be able to be circumvented.  This in turn will push other North Afri­can countries to invest in weapons rather than desperately needed development projects.

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