News / Middle East

    IS Foothold in Libya Threatens Europe, West Africa

    FILE - Civilians and security personnel stand at the scene of an explosion at a police station in Tripoli, Libya, a blast later claimed by militants professing loyalty to Islamic State, March 12, 2015.
    FILE - Civilians and security personnel stand at the scene of an explosion at a police station in Tripoli, Libya, a blast later claimed by militants professing loyalty to Islamic State, March 12, 2015.

    The Islamic State has a new front: an established foothold in Libya.

    And Libya gives IS a new opportunity: a place from which to expand into Africa and Europe.

    "Libya is one of the top two or three provinces claimed by IS, and the most dangerous," said Tom Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    While IS has had a presence in the chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya since late 2014, it has recently solidified its control of the coastal city of Sirte.

    Analysts estimate the extremist group has several thousand fighters in place in Libya, a large number of them veterans of the war in Syria and Iraq.

    The core is believed to be made up of Libyans, Tunisians and, some suspect, Europeans.

    FILE - Vehicle wreckages are seen after a suicide car bomber blew himself at a checkpoint near Misrata, Libya, May 21, 2015.
    FILE - Vehicle wreckages are seen after a suicide car bomber blew himself at a checkpoint near Misrata, Libya, May 21, 2015.

    "They are able to control real territory, and control much of Sirte and surrounding towns. They have something they can latch onto even if they are overblowing how much a ‘province’ it is," Joscelyn told VOA.

    IS-claimed "provinces" include pockets in Afghanistan, Egypt and Yemen.

    Rowboat ride to Italy

    Libya's Sirte is between the main cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, and across the Mediterranean from Italy.

    "Libya to Italy, you can do by a rowboat," noted Cyril Widdershoven, a Netherlands-based security analyst.

    Having a foothold in Libya could prove a significant boost to IS, both as a propaganda tool and in operational terms.

    "It says, we can have a presence wherever we choose,” Widdershoven told VOA. “It is not up to NATO, Washington, or London or Brussels. If you want us out of Iraq, we will go to Libya, and if you come to Libya, we can move to Egypt or back to Iraq."

    The closeness to Europe adds to the group's claims of an expanding caliphate.

    A base in Sirte puts IS within striking distance of much of Southern Europe
    A base in Sirte puts IS within striking distance of much of Southern Europe

    "Libya provides them a launching-off point to Rome, the symbol of Christendom. This becomes a very powerful talking point for them," Joscelyn said.

    Operationally, Libya also provides a number of advantages.

    “IS in Syria and Iraq are already suggesting that European fighters can go there by boat,” said Jacob Zenn, an African affairs fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. “Or, you can go to Europe by boat.”

    “They’re already beginning to explore those opportunities,” Zenn told VOA on the phone from Nigeria.

    African base

    The Islamic State is also looking to expand inside Africa.

    Libya could open up "a new market of consumers — young Africans who may be interested in the idea of the caliphate and the very action-oriented methodology of ISIS and its social media outreach," Zenn said.

    A permanent base in Libya would make the extremist group more flexible and versatile. From Libya, "they can work harder to expand in Mali" and recruit more in countries such as Chad and Nigeria, Zenn said.

    It would allow IS to expand its Middle Eastern character and add an African profile, he said.

    In 2014, the Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram — one of the most prolific jihadist organizations in the world in terms of attacks and casualties — pledged allegiance to IS.

    Joscelyn said IS has been supplying Boko Haram through its base in Libya, showing Boko Haram they could form a united network all the way through Nigeria.

    "These networks are much more cohesive than people realize," Joscelyn noted.

    From a propaganda standpoint, being able to say that IS exists in West Africa through Boko Haram has also been a significant coup for the terrorist group, which is in stiff competition for jihadi supremacy in the region.

    Al-Qaida and other jihadist groups, tribal gangs and criminal networks are rife in Libya, a country run by rival governments that have little control beyond their own power bases.

    Although Joscelyn cautioned that IS has exaggerated its actions in Libya, he said in some areas of Libya it has become the strongest jihadist group present.

    FILE - People attend the funeral of policemen killed in a truck bomb blast at a police training school in the western Libyan town of Zliten, Jan. 7, 2016.
    FILE - People attend the funeral of policemen killed in a truck bomb blast at a police training school in the western Libyan town of Zliten, Jan. 7, 2016.

    IS recently claimed a number of suicide bomb attacks in Libya, including at a police training center Thursday in Zliten that killed more than 50 people.

    Libyan oil

    Similar to its expansion in Iraq and Syria where IS captured cities and then expanded to seize territory and economic resources such as oil, grain and water, the group is aiming at oil targets in Libya.

    This week, Islamic State militants were fighting Libyan forces for control of crucial eastern oil terminals. 

    "The bigger issue for IS now is consolidating, to settle in Libya, to establish governance in Libya and really make their presence in Libya permanent," Zenn said.

    Analysts do not see an easy fix to Libya.

    "Libya is part of a bigger problem, and no one knows how to turn it back and stop it," Joscelyn said.


    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    January 09, 2016 11:24 AM
    Get cracking Europe. England and France created the anarchy in Libya. It was their idea to get rid of Qaddafi even if the US had to bail them out again when the made the usual mess of things.

    So what's it going to be Europe? Are you going to send in your armies to fight there or are you going to wait until they reach your shores in even greater numbers to attack you at home? France, what happened to your rapid reaction force? Making café stops along the way?
    In Response

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    January 10, 2016 12:33 PM
    meanbill, IS as a world power is a joke. All they have is numbers. They are not even equipped to fight a battle in WWII and win against any of the governments involved. All they have are enthusiastic gangs of thugs with light weapons and some relatively few heavier conventional weapons. There has been no concerted effort by anyone to destroy them. If they were judged to be a real threat they would have been taken down a long time ago with the loss of a lot of innocent lives. Who is currently at risk besides individuals? The governments of Syria and Iraq. No real world power is prepared to shed any blood for them.
    In Response

    by: meanbill from: USA
    January 09, 2016 3:25 PM
    The ISIL terrorist army is spreading their Sunni Muslim Salafi Islam religion by the sword just like the Prophet Muhammad did in days of yesteryears, and their conquests have made them a world power now, big enough to withstand the assaults from the US and NATO super powers, [and now], the religious cause of the ISIL terrorist army and their supporters is spreading by the sword worldwide, because no countries on earth has proven that they can defeat any of the terrorist groups (even the smallest) anywhere in the world in 15 years of trying?

    PS; And now, the ISIL terrorist army is becoming even more powerful (with supporters worldwide) since no countries have been able to stop them? .. Like it or not, the ISIL terrorist army has become a world power? .. [is it because it's a failure of leadership in the US and NATO countries?]

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