Libya could become a new hub for ISIS, but given certain circumstances: Interview

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 9 Dec 2015

Spokesperson for Libyan army chief of staff Ahmed Al-Mesmari tells Ahram Online this possibility is not in the cards for now, but ISIS may seek to capitalise in the future on continued chaos Libya to expand

Black plumes of smoke is seen in the vicinity of Camp Thunderbolt, after clashes between militants, former rebel fighters and government forces in Benghazi (Reuters)

Speculations abound over the possibility that the ISIS epicenter could move from Iraq and Syria to Libya after the Islamist militant group recently took over the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, among other developments.

Ahmed Al-Mesmari, the spokesperson for Libyan Army Chief of Staff, said in a phone interview with Ahram Online that he believes this possibility is not in the cards for the time being, though it cannot be completely ruled out as a possible long-term scenario.

In his view, the ISIS mission to control Syria and Iraq – establishing a comprehensive "Islamist state" by taking over larger parts of both countries than they currently hold – has not yet been accomplished, thus making it less likely ISIS would shift focus to Libya in the immediate future.

In the distant future, however, Islamist militants might seek to capitalise on their presence in Libya to create a new hub for themselves, Al-Mesmari said, adding that political and military developments will determine such a fate.

The Libyan air forces have been continuously executing operations over areas in Benghazi where fighters from three main Islamist militant groups are positioned.

ISIS, the Benghazi Revolutionaries, and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia are the groups targeted by the Libyan air force. But the strikes, Al-Mesmari said, are not very effective, thanks to the army's limited firepower and lack of international support.

"Cairo is the only capital which provides support to and coordinates with the Libyan armed forces... Libyan history will remember the role Egypt has played in standing next to the Libyans since the beginning of the crisis," he said.

"We agree with Cairo that what is going on in Derna, Benghazi and Sirte is identical to what's happening in [North] Sinai, and that their expansion affects Egypt one way or another."

The Libyan airstrikes primarily aim at dispersing these groups in Benghazi and preventing them from advancing as much as possible.

However, Benghazi, in the east of the country, is not the only Libyan city plagued by Islamist militancy.

Last August, ISIS swept the area of Nofaliya, east of Sirte in western Libya, and declared an Islamist principality.

A similar attempt by the group in Derna in April 2014 failed because of Al-Qaeda's vast influence in that area.

Al-Qaeda is one of the militant groups that has built on the nationwide mayhem caused after Nato bombed and removed the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. They used a power vaccum in the last four years to spread their operations across Libya and consolidate their presence.

Meanwhile, NATO has announced that it will not join the international attacks on militants in Libya amid a lack of national unity, although last week the Pentagon confirmed that a US airstrike recently killed Abu Nabil, the Iraqi-born ISIS leader in Derna.

As international and regional powers mostly shy away from systematically backing the Libyan army, the Islamists’ domination is not expected to decrease.

Considering the status-quo, Al-Mesmari sees ISIS as the greatest beneficiary.

“The group might try to capitalise on their presence in Libya and create a new hub there,” he said.

This will mainly depend on the vision and action of the international powers involved in either supporting or battling ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya, he said.

“We in Libya have decided to go with what [Libyan General Khalifa] Haftar has announced; that we will cooperate with whoever fights terrorism in Libya."

General Haftar was appointed last March as army commander for the country's internationally recognised government.

Since the civil conflict erupted in the country, Libya has had two rival parliaments, governments and armed forces - one based in Tripoli and the other internationally recognised one in Tobruk.

Al-Mesmari believes some countries are opposing the officially recognised government and are actually backing Islamist militants. He pointed fingers at "masterminds" and "supporters" in Turkey and Qatar as well as "the collusion of the Sudanese government."

Al-Mesmari said his side is conducting two adjacent dialogues, including one with Germany's Martin Kobler, the new UN special envoy to Libya.

“There is also the Libyan dialogue that creates optimism among the Libyan population because it saves Libya from the prospect of international supervision," Al-Mesmari said.

"After all, we work as a patriotic army under the flag of the parliament and we are not involved in the political process, but political stability is definitely in favour of the country's stability."

Russia’s call for an international alliance to fight terrorism in Syria while supporting embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had a positive effect on Libya, Al-Mesmari said.

“The appearance of the Russian bear on the Syrian scene has changed a lot... it has changed the one-sided vision of the battlefield.”

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