News / Middle East

    Islamic State Pouring ‘Gas on Fire’ in Libya

    FILE - An image purportedly shows an English-speaking IS fighter speaking to the camera at an undisclosed location.
    FILE - An image purportedly shows an English-speaking IS fighter speaking to the camera at an undisclosed location.

    Over the waning weeks of 2015, about 500 key Islamic State (IS) officials and commanders packed up and slipped away, leaving their posts in Syria and Iraq.

    The move, according to a U.S. official familiar with the intelligence, was not part of any sort of retreat. Rather, it appeared to be a calculated move to bolster the self-declared caliphate’s growing provinces in Libya, already benefiting from a steady bleed-back of rank-and-file Tunisians and Libyans who honed their fighting skills in the terror group’s heartland.

    While some U.S. officials see the militant group's Libya expansion as part of an effort to “buy time and space” in order to shift the world’s focus from losses in Iraq and Syria, the threat is being taken seriously.

    A U.S. airstrike this past November targeted and killed Abu Nabil, believed to have been the top IS leader in Libya at the time.

    And in remarks earlier this week during a visit to Paris to meet with coalition partners, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter admitted, “Libya will continue to be a challenge in the year to come.”

    Other current and former officials are even more wary, watching what they see as a force growing in size and in capability in a state already mired in chaos.

    “It’s gas on the fire,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now with The Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence consultancy. “Now you have the real nightmare because Libya’s not going to get any better any time soon.”

    And it is a nightmare could look eerily familiar.

    Growing force in Libya

    “I would not be surprised if we woke up one morning, and ISIS in Libya had grabbed a large part of Libyan territory-the same kind of blitzkrieg on a smaller scale that we saw in Iraq,” former CIA deputy Director Michael Morell told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month, using acronym to describe the terrorist organization, which also goes by ISIL and Daesh.

    Part of the reason for that is how much IS's Libyan forces have grown, described by some as “exponential.”

    A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, put the number of IS fighters at “a few thousand,” though other Western and North African officials say the actual figure could be much higher, perhaps 5,000 or more.

    “These assessments are still very fluid as numbers are likely to increase, especially in terms of foreigners,” said Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University and president of

    Already, evidence suggests IS in Libya has supplemented its veteran fighters from Syria and Iraq with new recruits from Tunisia, Mauritania, Sudan and Somalia.

    And Pack believes the terror group is just starting to benefit from local support, something it has not yet enjoyed.

    “In the last few months and weeks native Libyan participation in ISIS has increased notably, especially in sleeper cells in Tripoli,” he said. “Most of these Libyans are young under 30's and many under 20's, some of whom were suicide bombers in Benghazi and, most recently, in Sidra.”

    Analysts believe that trend is only likely to accelerate if international efforts to broker a political settlement between the country’s warring factions falter or if some of those groups begin to succumb to internal differences.

    The Soufan Group's Patrick Skinner calls it a remarkable turnaround for a group that, despite its brazen propaganda, had been straining to make a real impact on the ground.

    “Last year ISIS was struggling,” he said. “They were just one of a thousand tiny militias in Libya.”

    But despite a lack of the type of sectarian tensions that IS used to its advantage time and again in Iraq and Syria, the group has managed to take what was once just a training base and managed to turn it into something more substantial.

    “Sirte, ISIS's stronghold in Libya, looks more and more like Raqqa, its Syrian equivalent: A city under foreign occupation,” according to Levantine Group security analyst Michael Horowitz.

    “The local branches of ISIS have spared no efforts to promote Libya as a land for jihad,” he added.

    Expanding reach

    And as more and more jihadists land in Libya, the IS militants' reach expands.

    “They have an increasing ability to project military power out of their base in Sirte and they have a safe haven space to organize, plan and recruit,” former U.S. Ambassador to Libya Robert Ford recently told U.S. lawmakers.

    And Skinner, the former CIA case officer, worries that it will not take much for the growing Islamic State base in Libya to make its presence felt via familiar smuggling routes across the Mediterranean Sea.

    “Instead of people having to go through Turkey and then cut across to Greece, they can now literally just hop on a boat and go 160 miles to Italy,” he said.

    “People are going to get across that we don’t want to get across,” Skinner warned. “And if anybody thinks we’re monitoring that on a individual level, that is crazy.”

    Captured IS Commander: Militants Changing Tactics Because of Coalition Bombingsi
    Dilshad Anwar
    January 22, 2016 8:15 PM
    An Islamic State commander captured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces says the militants are changing tactics in the face of bombings by the U.S.-led Western coalition. Captured near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, the commander spoke to VOA's Kurdish service reporter, Dilshad Anwer.

    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    by: kanaikaal irumporai
    January 23, 2016 6:46 AM
    With all said, the main issue is grabbing the oil-wealth of the Lybian people by the greedy and selfish Western powers. This seems to work well while the Lybians fight among themselves having allied to one or the other groups' philosophy and some with the Western powers to get rich themselves. This is nothing but a new form of colonial plunder that gave the kind of living-standards for the Europeans in the past.

    by: meanbill from: USA
    January 22, 2016 6:39 PM
    I still remember that naïve Obama speech when he (quote) said after the US had helped kill Qaddafi; "We've protected thousands of peoples in Libya; we have not seen a single US casualty; there's no risk of additional escalation, this operation is limited in time and scope."

    A naïve and ignorant president Obama deliberately ignored the congress disapproval and as commander in chief of all US military forces ordered US warplanes to lead the NATO air assault on the helpless ill-defended 3rd world army of Libya, their infrastructure, and the capture or killings of Qaddafi and his family, [and now], the whole world see's what he himself naively couldn't see then? .. And now, the terrorists are spreading and becoming more widespread, and have become a real world power now? .. Remember those famous words Obama (quote) said; "there's no risk of additional escalation, this operation is limited in time and in scope." .. Obama and NATO should have thought before taking action on the future fallout and repercussions their mission would cause, shouldn't they have? .. if they had only thought?

    by: EBOcale
    January 22, 2016 5:50 PM
    It is that gadaffi was removed by deliberate foreign military action why Libya is in ruins today, and has been for half a decade, and will be for much more time. The Libyas as far more worse in trouble than they would be without having removed gadaffi and ISIS and others are much more powerful there and elsewhere also. The same is been happening in Syria where action against the government is doing the same thing. It should stop, progress cannot be made by empowering extremist fractions.

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