Analysis: Is Sirte the New capital of the 'Islamic Caliphate'?

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 5 Jan 2016

While some analysts see the expansion of Islamic State in Libya as a response to the challenges IS faces in Syria and Iraq, it is more likely a component of ISIS regional expansion, rather than a shift in focus

A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight Islamic State militants near Sirte (Reuters)

Security threats in Libya are increasingly a burden on regional and international security. Alongside politico-security clashes between different local actors, Libya has also witnessed the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

This situation did not lead to the weakening of IS in Syria and Iraq, but rather offered an arena for the militant group in North Africa.

ISIS seeks to turn from an "Islamic State" into an "Islamic caliphate" — its core goal, revealed two years ago — spreading in more than one state outside the Levant.

While the greatest share of the burden is faced by countries such as Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, due to IS's expansion in Libya, the extremist group is currently seeking to strengthen itself through working with similar militant groups in Africa.

The Derna test: An imperfect choice

ISIS apparently has learned from its failures, including the pressure it came under one ago with Egyptian airstrikes in response to the killing of 21 Egyptians by ISIS militants. The siege imposed on the group by Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya's eastern city of Derna is also instructive.

ISIS's mistakes included sending an emir (leader) for its militants in Libya (Yemeni Al-Baraa Al-Azdi, killed during Egyptian airstrikes on Derna in late 2014), the strong presence and popular backing enjoyed by Ansar Al-Sharia, and the existence of ex-Al-Qaeda figures within the latter's leading positions.

In fact, ISIS was apparently testing whether Derna was a suitable location to be based in. The group stayed in Derna from April 2014 until June 2015, when it was kicked out of the city. Yet it officially announced its presence in the area in February 2015, four months before losing the battle in Derna.

ISIS subsequently moved to the coastal city of Sirte, which lies on the south coast of the Gulf of Sidra and halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi — a city with number of strategic advantages.

Firstly, Sirte is far from the Egyptian borders, to an extent that reduces the possibilities of facing new air strikes, unlike the case in Derna.

Secondly, Sirte is far from the areas where the Libyan National Army has a strong presence. ISIS seeks to benefit from the latter's involvement in confrontations against Ansar Al-Sharia.

Thirdly, ISIS exploited the state of division between militia fighters in Tripoli and Benghazi. Not having strong competitors might have contributed to increasing militant recruitment in Sirte.

Fourthly, the economic importance of the Sirte is the most important factor, as the city represents a point of intersection of oil fields and gas pipelines in Libya, which constitutes an economic lure.

Therefore, it was not a surprise to see that IS's first attacks in Libya were on Al-Mabruk field, which is located about 100 kilometres south of Sirte. The French oil company TOTAL holds the production process at Al-Mabruk field.

The importance of Sirte economically also is due to the presence of many strategic sites and institutions, including Alkarzabih Air Base, the industrial river, as well as the Sirte power plant.

Fifthly, there is no local competition for ISIS, neither in Sirte nor in the Libyan scene in general. Ansar Al-Sharia share similar views to ISIS, as expressed in their ideological discourse, such as not recognising the government, rejecting the political process and bringing down the state. These groups also share a similar view on Sharia law, in accordance with the jihadi Salafi trend.

Another element is the possibility of attracting elements loyal to the former regime of Gaddafi. Ex-intelligence officer, for example, was appointed the local governor of Nofaliya.

Libyan officials say the relationship between Gaddafi loyalists and ISIS is based on a carrot and stick mechanism. However, IS has been attempting to reproduce the Iraqi situation of polarising Baathist elements.

Illustrative is the fact that the mmir of ISIS in Libya, appointed by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was Iraqi Wessam Al-Zubaidi (known as Abu Nabil Al-Anbari), who was killed in a US strike in November.

Is Sirte a pivot for ISIS from Iraq/Syria to Libya?

A lot of analysts have looked at ISIS's growing presence in Libya an an attempt to root the mother organisation there, to avoid the collapse of the militant group, especially after the international coalition intensified combat against ISIS in Syria. However, this perception is not accurate, for a number of reasons:

First, there is no certainty that ISIS in Iraq will collapse in a certain timeframe. Thus, ISIS does not attempt to move to Libya to avoid confrontation in Iraq.

Second, even though stances in the international community towards Syria are close, there is no united front to counter ISIS. Hence, ISIS's presence in Libya isn’t a tactic to move its capital to Libya.

Meanwhile, geopolitical factors and the deterioration of the security apparatus in Libya have led to increased ISIS presence in Libya, even if ISIS leaders in Nofaliya and Harawah are Iraqis. This increase aims at expanding the caliphate, not moving its capital.

International reports suggest that ISIS might be forming a more developed training field in Libya to support ISIS in Iraq, especially Um El-Gerfan camp. 

There are challenges arising by the increasing Jihadist influence of ISIS in Libya; locally, regionally, and internationally.

Locally, the lack of a centralised government in Libya is one of the factors that increased ISIS's influence in Libya. Meanwhile, the political steps expected according to the recently signed agreement between Libyan factions on forming a national unity government are less than those necessary to face the multi-dimensional Libyan crisis. Nonetheless, speeding up the formation of a national unity government would be a step on the right track.

The existence of multiple fronts pose a challenge to, and illustrate the weakness of, Libya's security apparatus. The Libyan army is now battling militias and ISIS amid a freeze on the import of weapons to Libya absent a national government.

Regionally and internationally, there are parties with interests in Iraq and Syria. Yet in the Libyan case, there other parties who are fuelling the conflict and providing support to militias. The Tobruk government often refers to Qatar and Turkey as responsible for the escalation of the conflict.

On the other hand, Egypt cannot gain enough support from regional and international partners to intervene in Libya. Cairo is still waiting to receive international support through the UN from France, Russia and maybe Italy. But without a consensual strategy including the US and UK, the creation of an international coalition to counter IS in Libya would be ineffective.

No information currently implies that the Saudi-led anti-terrorism coalition could conduct strikes against ISIS in Libya.

Meanwhile, it is expected that the increase of IS influence in Libya will put a greater security burden on Egypt, not only on its western front, but even the cost of halting IS recruitment of Egyptians in Libya. According to the testimony of Abo Obaida El-Masry, who was recently arrested in Libya, there are 300 Egyptians in ISIS in Sirte.

In addition, ISIS in Libya will try to support its counterparts in Sinai, particularly in light of the operations conducted by the Egyptian army.

Similarly, the situation is ideal for ISIS in Libya to be the main communication centre for its brother organisations in Tunisia and Algeria, in addition to Chad and Mali, which witness low-intensity confrontations. Even more, African countries may facilitate the transfer of support to or from organisations such as Boko Haram.

Internationally, Western countries and Europe in particular are top ISIS targets, as the first ISIS speech from Libya tackled the so-called "Conquest of Rome."

Besides, there is vast recruitment in illegal immigrants, according to local Libyan reports. Despite the fact that France has realised the threat, it still has not made a decision to intervene in Libya.

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